By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is ready to accept another 30,000 acres of land into a new program under the highly popular Conservation Reserve Program.

The only catch is it's limited to specific areas of the state, notably near existing large tracts of native grass.

The idea, said wildlife biologist Matt Smith, is to benefit the lesser prairie chicken, a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The latest program, State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement -- SAFE -- are specifically designed to benefit the bird, which needs large areas of native grasslands to prosper.

Its most serious threats are a result of conversion of native rangelands to cropland, creating a patchwork of suitable habitat.

The lesser prairie chicken is but a step away from being placed on the federal endangered species list, and there are reports that such a move might take place as early as this winter. Already, a lawsuit has been filed in federal court seeking to force the issue.

The SAFE initiative is designed in part to show that steps are being taken to protect the bird, which could keep it off the endangered species list.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has already turned aside a request by state and local birding groups to place the bird on the state's endangered species list.

Smith, the KDWP's farm bill coordinator, said the SAFE program is specifically targeted to areas inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken and located close to where large tracts of grassland are already located.

It's a lucrative program for landowners.

In addition to the ongoing annual payments that are normally made under CRP, landowners would get a one-time signing incentive of $100 an acre.

"When you're talking about a quarter-section out there, which is not unusual, that's a pretty good Christmas present," Smith said.

In addition, landowners can get a one-time practice incentive payment equal to 40 percent of the eligible installation cost and cost-share payments of up to 50 percent on the cost of establishing a permanent cover.

In effect, that would mean landowners would only pay 10 percent of the cost of establishing stands of native grasses.

The 30,000 acres comes from an area that contains about 800,000 eligible acres spread across parts of 18 west-central and southwest Kansas counties.

Eligible area counties include portions of Ellis, Rush, Ness, Trego, Gove, Logan and Wallace counties.

"There's a lot of opportunities there," Smith said.

And he hopes interest is strong enough to show the Farm Service Agency, which administers the program, that additional acres are needed.

Signup started Wednesday and will continue until the the 30,000-goal is reached.

Landowners interested should contact FSA offices in counties with eligible land.