22 November 2010

Conservationists Laud Establishment of Prairie Conservation Area

The recently announced establishment of a Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area "is a magnificent opportunity to preserve tall-grass prairie in a context beyond what has been done in the past," said Ron Klataske, executive director for Audubon of Kansas.

"If landowners sell easements and this project is successful, it will ensure that the grasslands are not fragmented by developments such as wind farms or mining operations.

"This is a major step reflecting the vision to conserve this unique prairie system, said Klataske, whom has been a long-time champion of efforts to conserve the Flint Hills prairie ecosystem. He noted that "the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance (a coalition of conservation oriented ranchers and other conservations) was vitally important in the effort. The leadership and commitment of Jim Minnerath, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has devoted several years to the vision, and Bill Browning, a rancher and Audubon of Kansas leader who demonstrates the benefits of proper management for grassland birds on the family ranch, served as a host for visitors many times to project the benefits."

"Only in the past few years has there been adequate recognition of the importance of the tall-grass prairie in the Flint Hills," Klataske said, noting it will be especially beneficial for the Greater Prairie-Chicken, Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow, which are among the 100 species of grassland birds known to occur.

Klataske attended the announcement of the plan in Wichita, noting the diversity of people present, including conservationists, elected officials, representatives from federal and state agencies, ranchers and other private landowners, as well as other proponents.

"There was a great sense of excitement by representatives of diverse organizations at the announcement held at the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita on November 12," Klataske said. "Even agricutural organizations that have not been traditional champions of conservation were present and on board with this project.

The Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area will "help maintain the integrity of tallgrass prairie wildlife habitat, stream water quality, and the rich agricultural heritage of the Flint Hills by acquiring and protecting up to 1.1 million acres of habitat through voluntary, perpetual conservation easements," according to a press release issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service. "These conservation easements will protect habitat for more than 100 species of grassland birds and 500 plant species, and ensure the region’s sustainable ranching culture - which directly supports conservation of the tallgrass prairie – will continue."

Purposes of the conservation area, according to the Land Protection Plan are to:

  • "preserve landscape-scale ecological integrity of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie by maintaining and enhancing the historical native plant, migratory bird, and other wildlife species with the support of the associated ranching culture;
  • "support the recovery and protection of threatened and endangered species and reduce the likelihood of future listings under the Endangered Species Act;
  • "protect the integrity of tallgrass prairie, riparian woodland, and prairie watersheds by preventing further habitat fragmentation;
  • "provide a buffer against climate change, by providing resiliency for the tallgrass prairie ecosystem through landscape-scale conservation;
  • "protect an intact north-south migration corridor for grassland-dependent wildlife;
  • "use the built-in resiliency to climate variability of native tallgrass prairie to ensure the continuation of wildlife habitat in the face of the uncertain effects of climate change."

In addition to conservation easements, Klataske noted that cost-share programs and incentive efforts would be used to conserve the prairie habitats, and be helpful in controlling the invasion of woody plants such as red cedar, lessening the extent of annual burning of grasslands which can have a detrimental effect on nesting habitat for prairie chickens.

“I am honored to stand with the diverse and visionary partners who are leading the effort to conserve the working landscapes and natural resources of the Flint Hills for future generations,” said Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of Interior. “I am especially proud that the first new refuge created under this Administration is the result of a partnership between governments, private landowners, and private organizations, all of whom recognize the vital role agriculture plays in stewarding our nation’s fish and wildlife resources. The Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area will serve as a living example of how wildlife conservation and ranching can successfully go hand in hand.

"The Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area is the product of efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, private landowners, and other agencies and partners to protect a unique and highly diverse area in eastern Kansas known as the Flint Hills Tallgrass Region. There were six public meetings help to discuss the proposal, and comments were also taken on drafts of the plan.

The project area, primarily in eastern Kansas- extends from just north of Manhattan and southward into northern Oklahoma [include map]. Several conservation areas comprising about 90,000 acres are already present and managed by The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ranchland Trust of Kansas, and Kansas Land Trust, for example.

Further information on the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area, including the land protection plan and associated National Environmental Policy Act documents are available online.