SCOTT CITY, Kan. (AP) — Kansas is relying on its conservation effort to protect the lesser prairie chicken as an ecotourism attraction that is attracting birdwatchers from across the world.
Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism officials have been working with ranchers and tour groups to meet the high demand for areas to view the vulnerable species of grouse, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
Western Kansas is one of the last remaining places with a sustainable native population of lesser prairie chickens, said Michael Pearce, the department's outdoor content manager.
The birds have thrived on a ranch in Scott City and along the Smoky Hill River basin, despite seeing a decline in most of its native habitat.
The state has seen the tourism aspect take off recently, and officials are working to pass on the project to private citizens.
Jim Millensifer, an Oakley resident who now coordinates the bird tour groups, said ranches have welcomed 200 visitors so far this year for guided tours, including people from 30 different states and 11 countries. It has brought visitors to western Kansas' small communities during the birds' mating season in the spring, when tourism typically declines.
"Twenty-seven of the 30 tours stayed in either Scott City or stayed in Oakley," Millensifer said. "Virtually all of them ate at least one meal, if not two, at local restaurants. We had nine different hotels or lodging places that were utilized. And obviously, they bought candy, gum, cigarettes, beer, ice, etc."
Pearce said he hopes that landowners will see the economic value of preserving lesser prairie chickens.
"One thing we wanted to educate the locals on is that there's a value to ecotourism and a value to these birds," Pearce said. "If wildlife doesn't have a value, isn't appreciated, it isn't going to last."
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com