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The prairie chicken are most frequently found around the Missouri River in South Dakota. The hunting season has a daily limit a three birds per hunter.

Associated Press

Three hunters approached a cedar tree standing sentinel from a hill overlooking a gravel road that bordered a scraggly field of alfalfa.

A covey of 10 prairie chickens exploded from beneath the cedar tree as the hunters reached a rusty barbed-wire fence. Two shots rang out, each dropped a bird. Two hunters finished out their daily limit of prairie grouse. A final bird tried to escape in the confusion, squirting out from under the tree to flee back over the alfalfa. He was brought down by a quick shot from the third hunter in the party.

Rarely are there more perfect moments in upland hunting, particularly when the birds being hunted are greater prairie chickens. As the name implies, prairie chickens are birds of the great, wide-open spaces found in North America's Great Plains. As such, they evolved to see threats from a long way off and act accordingly, i.e., jumping into the air and high-tailing it to safer ground.

As it happens, human-driven changes to prairie chicken habitat were part of the reason why the trio of hunters — Oklahoma conservation banker Wayne Walker, California food writer and award-winning chef Hank Shaw and Sioux Falls hunting guide Chance Stoeser, who works part time at his friend Quenton McEntee's ranch — wound up chasing chickens southwest of Iona, South Dakota on the first Saturday of October 2017.

They'd been invited to take part in the North American Grouse Partnership's first-ever dream grouse hunt. The focus was on prairie grouse. For hunters in South Dakota, that usually means greater prairie chickens and sharptail grouse, but the term can be applied to the lesser prairie chicken of the southern Great Plains and sage grouse of the great sagebrush seas of the American West.

Two out of the four species of prairie grouse, lesser prairie chickens and sage grouse, are facing steep population declines. In the last three years, both species have found themselves candidates for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Sage grouse narrowly avoided being placed on the list in 2015. Mostly that was due to an unprecedented partnership between 11 states, several conservation organizations and, though some will deny it, the mining, oil and gas industries. The partnership's formation and the state management plans that resulted from it led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulling sage grouse from its list of candidates for the endangered species list.

A year earlier, in 2014, the lesser prairie chicken actually was placed on the federal threatened- and-endangered species list.

Then, in 2015, a federal court in Texas vacated the listing. The judge presiding over the case said USFWS hadn't accounted adequately for a multi-state lesser prairie chicken conservation effort. In 2016, the USFWS officially removed the birds from the list.

Greater prairie chickens haven't found themselves so close to the brink, likely because they currently inhabit larger grasslands further to the north that haven't yet been subject to as much energy development, crop expansion and invasive-tree infestations. Still throughout most of their current range, greater prairie chickens are in decline.

South Dakota is one of the greater prairie chicken's few strongholds. The Fort Pierre National Grassland, in fact, is one of the few places where the prairie chicken population has been growing over the long term. That the state still is home to a strong prairie chicken population and an even stronger sharptail grouse population was one of the biggest reasons for the North American Grouse Partnership to host its first hunt in the state.

As it turns out, die-hard prairie grouse hunters are few and far between. It took a while for NAGP to get off the ground. In 2016, the organization's leader decided to change things a little bit. They hired the organization's first full-time executive director, Steve Belinda, and switched gears from being focused on their own habitat projects to working on conservation policy and helping other groups get their projects up and going.

Belinda organized the hunt. The idea was to raise a little money for NAGP but more important was the chance to bring a few people together who like hunting and believe in conservation. Among the folks who attended the hunt were Pheasants Forever CEO Howard Vincent, Secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department Kelly Hepler and 12 others including Shaw, Walker and Stoeser.

In most places where both varieties of prairie chickens exist, the vast majority of land is privately owned. So the challenge becomes how to work with private landowners to preserve prairie chicken habitat without having to force them to do it, Belinda said.

In sage grouse country, the battle often is with oil, gas and increasingly, wind energy interests on public lands.

In large part, the problem comes down to money. In most years, industrial agriculture tends to provide farmers and ranchers with a higher income from their land than federal conservation programs. There also are relatively few disincentives to plowing up grasslands to make room for corn, soybeans or any of a wide range of cash crops.

While fires have always been a regular part of grassland life and are a good thing in the right amounts, burning every year throws off the balance of grass species, which leads to tougher nesting conditions. Also, the burning usually is done during the early spring, prairie chicken nesting season, Riley said.

Energy development in lesser prairie chicken and sage grouse habitats has been just as destructive. It helps fragment habitat and because prairie chickens need large, relatively contiguous blocks of land to survive, it helps decrease their numbers. Energy development, whether it's oil, gas or wind, also is a lot more lucrative than conservation. Which is why farming, ranching and energy interests fought so hard to keep lesser prairie chickens and sage grouse off the endangered species list, which would mean a lot of restrictions on what can and can't be done.

"A lot of people that are in business are threatened by these issues," Riley said.

For hunters such as those who belong to conservation organizations like NAGP, an endangered species listing means they're no longer allowed to hunt such birds as sage grouse. Lesser prairie chickens are in enough trouble that no state allows hunting them anymore. The goal for NAGP is to ensure that there are populations of all grouse that can be hunted. It is, after all, an organization of hunters.

Conservation programs that can compete reliably with agriculture and energy probably aren't going to come from the government anytime soon, Belinda said. Given the roughly $20 trillion in national debt, the fight over health care and the current presidential administration's actions so far on conservation, such as trying to change the multi-state plan that kept sage grouse off the endangered list, the time may be to turn to private investors, he said.

"We need to figure out a way to service the needs of the private investment community," Belinda said.

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Private investment in conservation is what brought conservation banker Wayne Walker to the NAGP hunt. He runs Common Ground Capital, a company that coordinates conservation banks in the southern Great Plains. Their focus is on the lesser prairie chicken.

The basic idea of a conservation bank is to use private-investor money to help pay a landowner enough that it becomes a good financial decision to set aside prime habitat for wildlife such as the lesser prairie chicken. Once the land is set aside, the investor can turn around and sell conservation credits to developers so they can develop energy resources. This keeps at least some habitat on the ground and gives landowners another way to make money.

Walker said he's had some success but what makes developers buy the credits, which give his investors the chance to make a profit, is the threat of the federal government shutting down energy development to protect an endangered species.

"The unfortunate reality is unless you have the threat of a federal hammer, you're not going to have an impetus for change," Walker said. "They (energy developers) just aren't going to do the right thing without someone forcing them to."

Compounding the problem of adequately funding conservation is the continued decline in the number of hunter in the U.S. For decades, the number of people who hunt has been on a slow downward track, Belinda said.

"There were 2.2 million hunters lost in the last five years," he said.

In North America, hunters and anglers, the folks who most directly use wildlife resources such as prairie grouse, have been the driving force behind conservation funding. That goes back to 1937 and the Pittman-Robertson Act, which charged an excise tax on guns, ammo and later, archery equipment specifically to fund state conservation and hunting programs through grants.

The act also required states that receive grants through the Pittman-Robertson Act to dedicate all the money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses to wildlife management and conservation.

So as the number of hunters declines, the amount of money to manage and conserve wildlife dwindles, too. That has a lot of folks worried. And as do most conversations about conservation these days, the conversation at the NAGP hunt eventually found its way to what can be done about the decline of hunting.

The consensus was that there are no silver bullets.

Contact Geoff Preston at geoffrey.preston@rapidcityjournal.com

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