Southwest Kansas companies to add 34,000 acres of native habitat;
potentially the best lesser prairie chicken area anywhere

In an example of how corporate expansion can enhance the needs of native wildlife habitat, Wheatland Electric Cooperative, in cooperation with Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, has purchased 34,000 acres of irrigated cropland and plans to restore it to native grass, approximating the region's original sand sage prairie. The effort is part of a Sunflower Electric Plant expansion project in Finney County. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP), the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Pheasants Forever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other conservation groups have also been involved in the project.

Lynn Freese, director of Member Services for Wheatland Electric Cooperative explains how this purchase is good for both people and land.

"The land purchase was made primarily to acquire the water rights associated with it," Freese explains. "These sand hills are currently irrigated, but there's a power plant project underway that requires water for cooling of the plant and various other plant processes. We purchased those water rights with the purpose of converting them to industrial or municipal use. That leaves basically dryland farm acreage, and the sand hills are not very conducive to farming under dryland conditions. The option is to convert it back to native cover to keep those hills from blowing.

"We've established a three-year program to get a cover crop planted on it and then come back in and seed a native grass mixture recommended by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Office in Finney County," Freese continues. "Then it should take another two years to get the grass established. At that time, we can convert the water to our power plant and other uses."

The 34,000-acre site will contribute a sizeable area of permanent grass cover to the Sand Sage Prairie Region of Kansas, which already provides critical habitat for lesser prairie chicken, northern bobwhite quail, and numerous other native species.

"Everything I've read reveals that these sand hills are extremely important for lesser chickens in this part of the state," says Freese. "We've seen lessers on and around the property, so I would expect that restoring these blocks of land close to the native habitat that once existed would greatly benefit these birds. Quail and practically any native animals in the area should benefit."

Although the primary purpose of the purchase is to obtain the water rights, Freese says it's not only good business, it's good policy overall.

"Certainly, conservation is something that a lot of people are looking at today -- conserving land, conserving soil, conserving water -- and I think anytime a landowner participates in these types of programs, the community looks upon them favorably. And in this case, the policy makes good monetary sense."

The area being purchased is adjacent to 20,000 acres of native sand sage prairie that already provides habitat for lesser prairie chickens, northern bobwhites, loggerhead shrikes, and Cassin's sparrows, among other prairie birds. Together with the 34,000-acre site, the total area will greatly improve native wildlife habitat in Finney and Kearny counties.

The power companies consulted with the KDWP, Pheasants Forever, Sharp Brothers Seed Company, and the original landowners to develop a restoration plan that KDWP biologists believe is on the right track.

"Most of the credit lies with the power companies," according to Randy Rodgers, upland game bird biologist for KDWP. "When KDWP got involved, they were well down the road and headed in the right direction, and I think they have every intention of managing the property well. This has the potential to be one of the best prairie chicken areas anywhere."

Purchasing the land was essential to Sunflower Electric's plan to build two additional 700 megawatt plants. The plants will be concentrated on a few hundred acres adjacent to the current plant. Since the area is located in an Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area (no more water rights available for allocation), the only way to get the water needed to operate the plants was to purchase the land and water rights.

"Restoring the land to native sand sage habitat was simply good citizenship," says Freese, whose western Kansas roots and personal involvement with Pheasants Forever may have influenced the company's plans.