By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

For Jim Pitman, it's a big deal finding flocks of errant prairie chickens in northwest Kansas, well outside the species' historic range.

And that's even considering Kansas is home to the greatest number of lesser prairie chickens in the nation.

Surveys conducted as many as 30 miles away from existing prairie chicken territory -- not to mention the bird's historic range -- have proven to be successful, according to Pitman, the small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

The tip to search outside the known range came about through the use of a bit of free software to provide suggestions on where to look for prairie chicken leks -- breeding grounds where the birds put on elaborate displays to attract the attention and right to breed with females.

Using Maximum Entrophy software and working in concert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, the agency pinpointed several spots that would have a "relatively high probability" of containing prairie chickens.

With those results in hand, KDWP&T set out to look at the most promising sites.

The targeted surveys were successful in locating new lek sites and resulted in KDWP&T extending the historic lesser prairie chicken range 30 miles north. Despite high winds making it difficult to detect some leks, the biologists found both lesser and greater prairie chickens and greater/lesser prairie chicken hybrids, called "guessers," present on 11 leks well outside the current known range of the species.

With the help of the software, KDWP&T also located 23 leks occupied solely by greater prairie chickens and three leks in which species composition could not be identified.

Because of its success, Pitman will be working with the Western Governor's Association to develop guides for development of wind resources. That project will work in tandem with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is developing environmental impact statements for wind development along a 200-mile-wide corridor the endangered whooping crane uses. Coupled with that will be a look at the area inhabited by lesser prairie chickens.

FWS is currently working on a plan that would move the lesser prairie chicken onto the federal Endangered Species list. It has been deemed eligible for listing, but was precluded by higher-ranking species.

That's one reason Pitman is delighted to find prairie chickens have moved outside their historic range.

And they've not yet looked at all of the potential sites, he said, including areas in Cheyenne, Rawlins and Sherman counties that show the potential for harboring prairie chicken.

He hopes to hire temporary help next spring to conduct additional surveys to see if other leks can be found.

The spread, Pitman said, is all natural and not the result of relocating birds into new areas.

There are suggestions, he said, the shift might be a result of climate change.

"Personally, I think the birds are moving north into suitable habitat," Pitman said. "It's just taken them awhile."

And he point to land in the Conservation Reserve Program as responsible for the dispersion and the strong growth in prairie chicken population.

"The CRP is supporting the majority of them," he said.

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Even with the spread of prairie chickens in northwest Kansas, Pitman remains concerned about the health of the greater prairie chicken population in the Flint Hills.

On the fringe areas of the Flint Hills, there's no regular burning program, so the area is being overtaken by trees and brush.

In the heart of the Flint Hills, nearly all the grass is burned every spring, leaving little in the way of nesting habitat.

"There's very little happy medium," Pitman said.

KDWP&T is currently conducting a study on the practices and hopes to take it to Natural Resource Conservation Service. The goal is for NRCS to develop some type of incentive program to encourage ranchers to develop burn plans that will benefit the greater prairie chicken.

Outside the Flint Hills, greater prairie chicken populations are somewhat more stable in the Smoky Hills of north-central Kansas and in the northwest part of the state.