Now, Hoeme sits on one of the top areas for lesser prairie chickens in the world.
The ratio is so skewed toward northwest Kansas, in fact, that most of the research that’s been done in the past 10 years on lesser prairie chickens has taken place in a few counties in that region, according to Michael Pearce, who works as an outdoor content manager for the KDWPT.
“The biologists kept asking Stacy, ‘Hey, can we send people here if we have people who want to see the birds?’ ” said Pearce, who worked for years as the outdoors writer for the Wichita Eagle before taking the job with the KDWPT in January 2018. “At the same time, birders from other states were contacting people in Kansas saying, ‘Where can we see the birds?’ because there was no place to see them outside of Kansas. So when I took the (KDWPT) job, one of the things we wanted to push was birding as ecotourism.
“So I got with Stacy Hoeme and asked about putting up a blind. He was 100 percent supportive. And then the Smoky Valley Ranch, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Those are two areas of great habitat, and between the two we annually have about 16 leks, which is more than most states that have the birds, and we have roughly 500 lesser prairie chickens between the two ranches.”
Pearce focuses largely on the tourism side of the outdoors, and has played a big part in helping to organize the guided tours and put in place the ecotourism initiative, which not only helps bolster conservation efforts but also provides incentives for the private landowners to volunteer their lands as tourism-funded sanctuaries for the birds.
“We do have the market cornered on lesser prairie chickens,” said Pearce, who Hoeme said he has known for more than two decades.
At one point, a biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife asked Hoeme if they could transfer 30 birds from his ranch to translocate in Colorado. He asked a biologist with the KDWPT if they had enough birds to give away, and the biologist said that shouldn’t be a problem.
“I said, ‘How many birds you got in Colorado?’ and he said 24,” said Hoeme, who was taken aback. “I said, ‘You mean 24 birds or 24 leks?’ And he goes, ‘No, we’ve got 24 birds.’ ”
Aside from being one of the only places in the world where people can view these beautiful birds, the picturesque prairie setting of Hoeme’s ranch also offers for a one-of-a-kind experience for many birders.
“You can actually still see the stagecoach tracks across the Hoeme Ranch farming lands from when the old Western Union and Wells Fargo stages went across,” said Mike Smith, CEO of GreenSmith Public Affairs. “There’s no unspoiled prairie left in our country except in western Kansas. We have lots of phone poles — the reason the lesser prairie chickens are becoming threatened is because of natural predation from hawks and eagles — and so anywhere there’s a phone pole, electric wires, a windmill, there’s a chance for these birds to come and get them. So they need wide-open prairie — thousands of acres — without elevations above them where the raptors can come get them.”
The Partnership for International Birding recently visited the Hoeme Ranch with members from all across the world, including the U.K., Norway, Australia, Russia, Honduras and Germany. The birdwatchers were able to get a glimpse of the birds’ mating dance ritual while sitting in portable blinds and a converted school bus.
Hoeme said the reaction he gets from those who get to see the birds up close is well worth any extra work that goes into the conservation side of running the ranch.
“It’s pretty amazing how people are so thrilled on seeing these birds,” Hoeme said. “Some of these people are going down by Dodge City, looking a quarter-mile away at these birds, and we try to get them fairly close. Some of them are sitting in a blind, some of them we got sitting in a bus maybe 40, 60 yards away from the birds and some of them are right within 10 yards of the birds. It varies on that.
“People coming out of the blinds are just like, ‘Oh my god!’ We had a little old lady come out of one of the blinds and say ‘I’ve never seen anything so exciting in my life.’ There was tears in her eyes and she gave me a big old hug, and I was like ‘My wife might not like this if I keep doing this very often.’ Seeing the people and everything, they’re pretty thrilled. It’s a little work, but we’ve got something people don’t have, so it’s kind of unique and it’s kind of nice to be able to show off the ranch.”
The best part for ranchers like Hoeme, who earned the 2018 Leopold Conservation Award for his ranch’s role in conserving native wildlife, is that he doesn’t really have to do anything outside of what he’s already been doing for years to manage the leks, as the ranch’s ultimate goal is to manage healthy grasslands for their cattle to graze on.
“I’m a hunter, I like to hunt and that’s kinda where the conservation side of it comes in,” Hoeme said. “By trying to help the deer and the antelope and a few of those other game birds that we had up there, it benefited all the wildlife in the long run. It benefits wildlife and even the butterflies, everything flies through.”
Rather than being detrimental to the lesser prairie chicken population, as was once feared, Hoeme and other ranchers have found the birds actually benefit greatly from having them around. The cell grazing process Hoeme utilizes, which replicates the natural grazing patterns of the American bison in the prairie, is ideal for the lesser prairie chickens, which rely on grasses being different lengths so they can show off their dancing skills in shorter grass, then retreat back to the safety of the taller grass cover. Not only has it helped those birds, but it’s been beneficial to other struggling species, as well, such as black-footed ferrets, swift foxes, prairie dogs, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks.
“It’s healthy for livestock and healthy for wildlife,” Pearce said. “It’s not like they’re setting aside a certain part, giving up a lot of income, or they’re not going to not let cattle in for three years, they’re just in the business of keeping a healthy prairie. When you have a healthy prairie, you have a healthy wildlife population and healthy livestock populations, which is one thing we’re definitely proving here.
“It is neat, and you know, who knew that replicating the way Mother Nature designed the buffalo was the way to do it. What a novel idea! She had it right the first time.”
Oakley’s Smoky Valley Ranch to the south, which sprawls over 18,000 acres and is home to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, uses both buffalo and cattle for its grassland management.
In an unusual bit of luck for conservationists, ranch manager Matt Bain just happened to have earned his master’s degree studying lesser prairie chickens. Pearce said Bain has been a great resource for the ecotourism and conservation efforts.
Kent Fricke, small game coordinator for the KDWPT, also stressed the importance of CRP grasses in the management of prairie chickens, as well, saying that studies have found the addition of CRP helped protect the birds when droughts have caused other shortgrasses to fail as cover. He said the most recent farm bill in particular was of vital importance to conservation efforts as it increased the acreage cap of CRP grasses.
Hoeme says he’s talked a bit with other ranchers about cell grazing and the benefits he’s had from it, but says he doesn’t try to push his beliefs on how to run a ranch too much onto others.
“If you have good wildlife, you usually have fairly good grazing and all of that,” Hoeme said. “We actually, with that cell grazing and how we rotate the cattle through, we’ve put more calves, normally yearlings, on the ranch. Individual cattle won’t gain as much (weight), it doesn’t seem like, but you can take more beef off the ranch this way. You have more numbers out there. It might not gain individually as much, but you can actually gain total pounds better, that way you have more volume out there.”
Oakley’s Jim Millensifer, who books the tour groups for the ranches, said he hopes to see more ranches added to the program. He said he’s already booking for 2020, and has talked to both Scott City and Oakley about the need for a festival centered around the spring mating season — though he said has no interest in starting one personally, with all of his other commitments.
To book a lesser prairie chicken tour in northwest Kansas, contact Millensifer by email at email@example.com or by phone (785) 953-1139.
Total cost for the viewing experience is $70 per person, not including lodging, which is up to the viewer to provide. Ranchers get the majority of the funds to encourage conservation practices. The rest covers local guides and booking fees. Tour leaders of accredited tour companies are exempt from that cost. There is a $280 minimum per blind. Should one lek fail, which has yet to happen, groups will be taken to another at no charge. For questions about the birds, the blinds or the ranches or to book a trip, contact Jim Millensifer by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (785) 953-1139.