Conservationists launch effort to restore prairies |

Conservationists launch effort to restore prairies

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Four conservation groups are teaming up to restore some of the country’s original grasslands and preserve the wildlife that depends on it.

The groups announced the partnership Tuesday. Members say only 10 percent of North America’s 585 million acres of original native grasslands remain, putting wildlife that live there at peril. The goal is to improve 60 million acres of habitat.

Terry Riley of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said the project’s focus will be on grouse because the birds are a bellwether of the prairie’s condition.

“We have found that prairie grouse are one of the most sensitive (species) to change,” said Riley of Albuquerque, N.M., formerly a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Other groups in the new Prairie Grouse Partners are the Mule Deer Foundation, Pheasants Forever and the North American Grouse Partnership.

With help from U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the groups identified all the counties with prairie and assessed the condition of the grasslands. The area stretches from the plains in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, east as far as Ohio and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The groups say farming and ranching, construction, oil and gas development and drought have carved and covered up the habitat through the years. Their plan explores habitat needs of the sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie-chicken and the lesser prairie-chicken.

The lesser prairie-chicken is a candidate for the federal endangered species list, which means there is sufficient reason to give them federal protection but other species are higher priorities. The range of the lesser and greater prairie-chicken has shrunk by as much as 90 percent, according to the grouse partnership.

“All the wildlife species associated with the habitat have suffered pretty significant losses through time,” Riley said. “They’ve declined to the point that if we don’t do something pretty soon, we’ll have a whole bunch of endangered species on our hands.”

Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever, said in a written statement that while all the current conservation issues are critical, time has almost run out for the grasslands.

And the tall-grass prairie, which starts farther east, is the most threatened, Riley said. Much of the land has been converted to agriculture because it gets more moisture than the short- and mixed-grass prairie farther west and the soil is fertile, he added.

Riley said the Prairie Grouse Partners hope to enlist more groups in the cause, including ones in Canada.

He said conservationists and wildlife advocates starting working with farmers and ranchers in the 1980s and lobbying for incentives in the federal farm bill to encourage ag producers to protect habitat through such methods as changing grazing patterns or when and how grass was mowed.

Other areas, such as wetlands or bottoms of draws where vegetation abounds due to moisture that gathers there, have been conserved through easements or rental payments. Riley said the new conservation partnership is aimed at better coordinating efforts.

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