In south-central Kansas lies a region marked with beautiful prairie vistas, rich grazing lands, pristine streams and deep red canyon walls. Known as the Red Hills, this area plays host to rich and diverse plant and wildlife communities and is Kansas’ second largest and second most important, intact native prairie habitat after the Flint Hills. The Red Hills are also the site of The Nature Conservancy Kansas Chapter’s newest community-based conservation program, the Red Hills Initiative.
The Red Hills are also known as the Gypsum Hills because of their exposed Permian ‘red beds’, the prehistoric combination of brick-red shales, siltstones, sandstones, dolomite and gypsum. They are located primarily in the Kansas counties of Clark, Comanche and Barber and spill into northwestern Oklahoma. In recent history, the Red Hills were known as the Medicine Hills because Plains Indians believed the region’s streams hastened the healing of wounds. They were not far off the mark as the waters contained calcium and magnesium sulfates which can have a therapeutic and healing effect.
Starting an initiative in the Red Hills region has been a priority of the Kansas Chapter for many years because they provide critical habitat for many rare or at-risk species like the lesser prairie-chicken, and they contain the highest concentration of bat caves in Kansas. In fact, more than half of all caves in the state are found within the Red Hills. The dramatic topography houses several other species that are only found within the Red Hills, including the Southern prairie skink, Texas blind snake, longnose snake and night snake.
The Kansas Chapter’s primary goal in the Red Hills is to conserve ecological diversity over a large-scale area that will ensure the recovery and well-being of key species populations. Plans include:
• Building partnerships with landowners and other key conservation interests;
• Using voluntary easements to conserve at least 5,000 acres in the Red Hills over the next three years; and
• Restoring and conserving high-priority streams that offer potential for pristine conditions.
Like many other western rangelands, ranching is deeply ingrained in the culture and economy of the Red Hills, and the majority of land area is comprised of privately-owned ranches. The landowners and managers are rooted in a strong land stewardship ethic, and this ethic is largely responsible for the persistence of species like the lesser prairie-chicken.
Threats to the landscape of the Red Hills have increased significantly with the expansion of energy development, mining, ranchette subdivision, tree encroachment and land-use conversion. Many of these threats can be abated through partnerships with private landowners and other conservation organizations and agencies. Conservation easements, prescribed fire, tree removal and stream recovery are among the strategies that can benefit both grazing operations and grassland wildlife conservation.
The Nature Conservancy has many partners in this effort including private landowners and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.