Places We Protect

Smoky Valley Ranch

Kansas

Light green yucca flowers growing in front of a barbed wire fence, with red bluffs in the background.
Smoky Valley Ranch Chalk bluffs and yucca plants at Smoky Valley Ranch in Kansas. © Lance Hedges/TNC

Smoky Valley Ranch combines a working cattle ranch with thriving wildlife populations. It is home to lesser prairie-chicken, a bison herd and pronghorn.

Overview

Description

On this land, you'll view sights that have almost vanished from America—bison roaming a prairie as they did hundreds of years ago; prairie-chickens dancing on their leks; herds of pronghorn and mule deer hopping across the horizon. 

Dramatic chalk bluffs overlook large expanses of grassland, rocky ravines and Smoky Hill River. Breaks along the upper reaches of the river represent a transition zone between mixed grass and shortgrass prairie environments. When The Nature Conservancy purchased Smoky Valley Ranch in 1999, it was the largest land acquisition for conservation in state history. At that time, several parcels had been carved out of the ranch, sold to other buyers and converted to cropland. In 2020, the final piece was purchased, making the 18,000-acre ranch whole again.

This prairie supports tremendous plant and wildlife diversity while continuing its long history as a working cattle ranch. In western Kansas, 80% of the native prairie has been converted to some other use. Demonstrating that healthy wildlife populations and successful ranching operations go hand-in-hand is critical to retaining the 20% of the prairie that's left. 

For example, Smoky Valley Ranch is a critical, rare venue for one of the most important strategies for protecting lesser-prairie chicken: using grassland grazing techniques that encourage nesting and brooding habitat. The Nature Conservancy also works with other landowners in the area to help them improve conditions for prairie-chickens on their rangeland without sacrificing ranch profitability.

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Public access limited to hiking and horse trails only.

Hours

Open year-round during daylight hours.

Highlights

1 mile and 6 mile hiking loops on the western boundary take visitors past numerous historic and natural points of interest.

Size

18,000 acre working cattle and bison ranch. Public access is limited to the hiking and horse trails on the western boundary.

Explore our work in Kansas

Hiking and horseback trails on the western edge of Smoky Valley Ranch are open year-round. Prairie vistas and chalk bluffs greet hikers as they wind their way around the two trail loops. The first loop is one-mile hike, the second loop is five-mile hike. Please see below for directions to ranch and trail map and instructions. Because of the rough terrain, boots are recommended. Any items brought in like water bottles or food wrappers must be taken out.

DOWNLOAD the hiking and horse trail map

Trail User Guidelines

Smoky Valley Ranch is a large working ranch, privately-owned by The Nature Conservancy, most of which is leased for cattle grazing to local ranchers. The Nature Conservancy is not in any way responsible for your safety while you are on the trail.

Thank you for abiding by the following trail user guidelines:

  • Trail hours: daylight only. Plan your hike to be off trail by sunset.
  • Stay on the trail. Please do not leave the trail corridor or take shortcuts.
  • No bicycles or motorized vehicles.
  • No firearms.
  • No camping or campfires.
  • No smoking or alcoholic beverages.
  • Keep dogs leashed.
  • Leave nothing but footprints. Please do not litter.
  • Take nothing but pictures. Collecting of anything from the ground is not allowed. If you discover artifacts or fossils, please leave them and notify us at kansas@tnc.org or 785-233-4400. 

There is no restroom or water provided. There are rattlesnakes in this area, so wear boots and watch where you walk, especially in the early morning and late evening. Note the two trees to the west of the trailhead—a good trailhead landmark that can be seen from any high point along the trail. Your cell phone coverage on the trails might be weak and spotty.

While You're in the Area

Western Kansas is full of culturally and visually fascinating things to see and do.  We suggest you start with the Western Vistas Historic Byway route.

And no visit to Smoky Valley Ranch is complete without a stop at the nearby Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park.

The lesser prairie-chicken live stream will return next spring. Watch some of this year's highlights in the videos below.

Sounds of the Prairie Listen to the lesser prairie-chickens and other birdsongs as the prairie wakes up in the morning.

Each spring, male lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) face off at sunrise, competing to be selected to mate with awaiting females. The battles are more dance-off than fist-fight, and the opportunity to witness it is increasingly rare.

Seventy percent of all lesser prairie-chickens in the world are now found in western Kansas, between the Arkansas River and northern reaches of the Smoky Hill River. This is where the ranges for greater prairie-chickens and lesser prairie-chickens come together, forming a small overlap that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. This small area is also home to Smoky Valley Ranch where, this spring, 165 male prairie-chickens have observed attending 13 leks—the areas where the mating dances take place.

With suitable habitat in just five states (Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas), lesser prairie-chickens were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. A lawsuit challenging the listing ended in a judge vacating the listing decision in 2015. Another petition for listing as Threatened was received in 2016, and, in May 2021, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed listing two distinct populations segments under the ESA. The northern population of birds in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and across the north east Texas Panhandle would be listed as threatened, while the southern population in New Mexico and the southwest Texas Panhandle would be listed as endangered. Public hearings to gather comments on the proposal will be collected through July 2021 before a final decision is made.

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A few years ago, the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies developed a Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range Wide Conservation Plan to coordinate and guide conservation efforts. Matt Bain, western Kansas conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, is a member of the science committee for that group along with the state of Kansas' implementation team. The range-wide plan identifies the 18,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch as the only “partial stronghold” in western Kansas. (A “stronghold” for the species has been defined as at least 25,000 acres of high-quality habitat that is likely to be maintained in perpetuity.)

Pronghon on a Smoky Morning A pronghorn strolls through the lek while smoke from a nearby prescribed fire fills the sky.

Smoky Valley Ranch is a critical, rare venue for one of the most important strategies for protecting lesser-prairie chicken: using grassland grazing techniques that encourage nesting and brooding habitat. The Nature Conservancy also works with other landowners in the area to help them improve and maintain conditions for prairie-chickens on their land without sacrificing agricultural profitability.

GIF of two prairie chickens fighting.
Lesser Prairie-Chickens Lesser prairie-chickens jumping and flying during breeding season at Smoky Valley Ranch, Kansas. © Jim Richardson

Lesser prairie-chickens are icons of the western Kansas prairie, requiring large tracts of contiguous grassland in an area where less than a quarter of the native prairie remains. Known as an indicator species, the presence of lots of prairie-chickens indicates the the prairie is in good shape—and the opposite is true. It is ranchers who are stewarding the vast majority of these last wild places in Kansas and conserving  wildlife, like the lesser-prairie chicken, that depends on those places.

The proposal to provide lesser prairie-chickens with protections under the Endangered Species Act is supported by science—there’s no question that as grasslands continue to disappear, the lesser prairie-chicken is in trouble. But to truly recover the lesser prairie-chicken, we need to support private landowners who are on the front line of this issue. Private conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy have a role to play, but increased funding and focused implementation of government conservation programs, like those in the Farm Bill, will also be necessary.

One example is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a voluntary conservation program signed into law by President Reagan in 1985. In western Kansas, CRP provides landowners with cost-share and annual rental payments to restore native grass communities on croplands susceptible to erosion and to restore wildlife habitat. And CRP's impact on lesser prairie-chicken populations is one of the most successful voluntary conservation success stories of our time. The larger area around Smoky Valley Ranch is home to the majority all of lesser prairie-chickens in the world. Prior to CRP, they were undetectable in this area at all.

The Nature Conservancy will continue collaborating with the landowners, state and federal agencies and private investors who are all needed to bring this emblematic bird back from the brink.

March Morning on the Lek Watch as one lesser prairie-chicken puts on a show directly to the camera.
A group of about 10 prairie chickens in a field.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Lek Male prairie-chickens dance, spar, bellow and woo in a mating ritual known as a lek. © Justin Roemer/TNC
Lesser prairie-chicken running towards the camera in open field.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken More than half of all lesser prairie-chickens in the world are now found in western Kansas, between the Arkansas River and northern reaches of the Smoky Hill River. © Harland J Schuster
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Lek Male prairie-chickens dance, spar, bellow and woo in a mating ritual known as a lek. © Justin Roemer/TNC
Lesser Prairie-Chicken More than half of all lesser prairie-chickens in the world are now found in western Kansas, between the Arkansas River and northern reaches of the Smoky Hill River. © Harland J Schuster

100 Million Years Ago: Much of modern-day Kansas is covered by the vast inland sea that splits North America into two land masses.

66 Million Years Ago: The Western Interior Seaway begins to recede, leaving the carbonate deposits throughout the region that we know as the chalk bluffs and Niobrara Chalk formations.

15,000 Years Ago: Paleo Indians occupy the region and hunt ancient bison by running them off cliffs at Twelve Mile Creek. Bison antiquus were 15-25% larger than the modern Bison bison. Over the next 10,000 years, the climate warms and becomes more arid, megafauna populations decline and human activity in the area around Smoky Valley Ranch greatly decreases

Pre-19th Century: Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee, Comanche and Kiowa tribes inhabit the Smoky Valley River valley.

1854: Kansas territory is opened for European settlement.  Conversion of native prairie for crop production begins on a large scale.

1879: The last wild bison in Kansas is killed near Elkhart.

1885-1905: More than 100 families of African-American settlers put down roots on and around the ranch in Logan County. Many of the settlers have ties to the town of Nicodemus, the only remaining free black settlement in the state at that time.

1900s: Noah Ziegler a veteran cowboy began ranching at what is now known as Smoky Valley Ranch in 1884. Since that time, a succession of ranchers grazed the land with cattle and sheep.

1999: The Nature Conservancy purchased Smoky Valley Ranch from a collective of willing sellers to protect the land and keep the ranch intact. The following year, bison are reintroduced to the ranch.

2007: Black-footed ferrets, North America's most endangered mammal, are reintroduced to the interior of the ranch.

2020: The final inholding is purchased by The Nature Conservancy, making the ranch whole again for the first time in 150 years. Sheep wire has been removed to allow pronghorn to pass through the ranch unimpeded.

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