Playa Country

Tuesday's at 6:44 pm CT during All Things Considered

Playa Country, a project of the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (,  is a weekly radio show focusing on the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them. On the show, we talk to conservation and wildlife experts, as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers, about topics such as removing invasive shrubs to provide more water and forage, grazing management, the impact of fire on the landscape, and the important role playa wetlands have in recharging the Ogallala aquifer.

Michael Pearce /

Larry Haynes of Holyoke, CO, used to farm right through playa lakes in a field. He stopped that practice because in too many years, it was impossible to harvest crops that were flooded-out in the wetlands. He's a proponent of putting land to its best use. In his case, that meant developing those wetlands into wildlife habitat to benefit autumn and winter hunting.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Hunters and birders have more in common than might be assumed. Both support the conservation of wetlands and other bird habitat. Some people even identify themselves as both a hunter and a birder, as well as a conservationist. Yearly purchase of the Duck Stamp is an excellent way to actively support bird conservation.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp is the best kept secret in bird conservation. Buying the annual stamp is a simple, direct way for people to contribute to wetland and grassland conservation. This episode presents seven reasons to buy a stamp.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

If you think the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp, the "Duck Stamp," is just for waterfowl hunters, think again! Whether you hunt, bird, photograph wildlife and scenery, collect stamps or conserve habitat, you'll want to purchase this stamp.

Diane VanLandingham owns ranch land near LaJunta, CO, and has permitted bird counters with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies onto her land to survey bird species and count their populations.

Some landowners are wary of the motivations of technicians gathering bird data on their land. The more accurate data provided by the bird census program can benefit private landowners, who often shudder when there's talk a bird or animal might be listed as threatened or endangered because of land-use regulations such a listing can bring.

Darryl Birkenfeld / Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism

A new program for counting birds relies on random data-collection-points across a landscape -- some on public land, some on private. Ranchers shudder when there's talk a critter might be listed as threatened or endangered; rules sometimes are imposed that impact or impede operations.

Heartland Conservation Services

The association formed in 2006 and covers Roger Mills and Beckam counties. The group addresses the four common reasons people do not use prescribed fire: liability, training/experience, labor, and equipment.

Oklahoma Grazing Lands Conservation Association

Oklahoma State University's Dept. of Natural Resource Ecology & Management is researching effects of limited prescribed burning or "patch burning" to create a mosaic of patches across the landscape. Early research findings indicate better forage grasses and increased biodiversity.

Burning is a cost-effective method of controlling invasions of Eastern Red Cedar, but there's more to burning than simply touching torch to ground. Prescribed burns follow a precise, multi-page "prescription" to ensure efficacy and safety.

Roger Mills, Prescribed Fire Association

Biologist Peter Berthelsen of Pheasants Forever took action to educate land managers how to burn and created burn trailers stocked with all the hardware required to safely conduct prescribed burns. Scotia, Neb. rancher Tom Hartman talks about using fire to control an Eastern Red Cedar invasion.

Kansas Pheasants & Quail Forever

Native Americans used fire to manage rangeland for thousands of years, but a 100-year burning hiatus followed settlement by Europeans of the North American heartland. Those decades of fire suppression allowed invasive plants to negatively alter the landscape. But rangeland researchers and managers are awakening to the benefits of burning.


Many producers have converted to no-till, and now progressive farmers are learning to cover crop to keep soil covered after harvesting a cash crop. Ryan Speer is such a producer. He farms in central Kansas along the Arkansas River south of Halstead.


The Thompson Farm and Ranch straddles the Kansas-Nebraska line. Drought in this region is entering its fourth year. The Thompson family uses no-till practices to grow dryland wheat and corn and also run cows.


Playas benefit from practices that result in good soil health. Improving the health and quality of the soil is one of the easiest and most effective ways producers can increase crop productivity - hence profitability - while benefiting wildlife and improving the environment.

Dale Daniel

Playa wetlands benefit from practices that result in good soil health. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says there are four principles to improving soil health: 1) keep soil covered as much as possible; 2) disturb the soil as little as possible; 3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; and 4) diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.

This raptor migrates from its winter home in Argentina into western North America and breeds as far north as Canada. It's fate is tied to the amount of open rangeland left in the western prairie, and lots of habitat has been lost in the 20th Century after range land was broken out and farmed. The bird helps producers by eating insects, mammals and reptiles considered by producers to be pests. Conservation Reserve Program-enrolled land provides the type of habitat the bird can thrive in.


Alan Vernon

They're not sport birds, but they are important to the ecological balance of range land. We look at the lives and habitats of the birds, and how conservation initiatives like Conservation Reserve Program helps these species.


Tammy VerCauteren
Executive Director
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Ft. Collins, CO

Matthew Bain
Smokey Valley Ranch Project Coord.
The Nature Conservancy
Oakley, KS

William C. Johnson

The town of Eads in Kiowa County, Colorado, was already familiar with wildlife tourism. The community saw the cleanup and preservation of a wetland south of town as an economic development opportunity, which would attract birders to the habitat to observe local and migrating waterfowl. A ConocoPhillips grant, administered through Playa Lakes Joint Venture, got the project rolling.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

A ConocoPhillips grant provided seed money to assist the state of Kansas purchase 160 acres of salt-marsh wetland in Lincoln County, Kansas, from an elderly landowner who wanted to preserve the land perpetually. Kansas state biologist Matt Smith dealt with owner Jim Gurley, helped Gurley achieve his goal, and says the process was a very satisfying experience. As it was non-federal funding, the ConocoPhillips grant got leveraged multiple times by increasing the amount of federal and state funding made available to the project.

Jerod Foster

ConocoPhillips has teamed with Playa Lakes Joint Venture for more than 25 years to provide in-kind assistance and funds to provide conservation grants -- seed money to get conservation and habitat projects off and running. We talk about the importance of this non-federal source of money, which gets leveraged time and again by federal or state funds to make conservation/habitat projects happen.

Courtesy Ben Wheeler/Pheasants Forever and Nebraska Game & Parks Commission

Dave Hilfterty grows dryland winter wheat and irrigated corn in Perkins County, Nebraska. Dave had a challenge that was perfect for Wetlands Reserve Program assistance. Amongst his five irrigation circles there's a lagoon, which he got tired of trying to farm through.

Western Kansas is a semi-arid region, with yearly precipitation at 17-19 inches. Progressive farmers understand their biggest challenge is capturing and holding every drop of moisture they can. A group of Northwest Kansas producers meets regularly to discuss production practices. These growers are firm believers in no-till and planting cover crops whenever it's feasible. While some producers say cover crops unnecessarily sap moisture, members of Living Acres Network are more likely to say that the careful selection of a cover crop leaves residue that helps build the soil for better precipitation infiltration.

Mark Hilliard of Hale County, Texas, says, "This is cotton country. It's rare to find a pristine playa lake." He bought the native grassland on which the playa sits from family members, then protected the playa and a grassland buffer with a permanent Wetlands Reserve Easement. He couldn't be more happy with NRCS assistance removing sediment from the playa to improve its function and create bird habitat. NRCS conservationist Blake McLemore discusses what's involved in negotiating a perpetual easement.

William C. Johnson

McPherson County landowner Dale Schmidt bought ground he intended to farm, but often it was too wet to plant, or to harvest. He's pleased he enrolled the land as a perpetual wetland easement. Schmidt and his NRCS District Conservationist Blake McLemore discuss the improvements made to the parcel.

Texas Parks and Wildlife

Research indicates that a buffer surrounding a playa lake, consisting typically of native grasses and forbs, prevents migration of upland topsoil and farm chemicals into lowland wetlands such as playa lakes and rainwater basins.

Oklahoma Conservation Commission

We examine Jan Minton's ranch, the family operation she took over in Floyd Co., Texas. It had been "farmed to death," she said, and two playa lakes were in poor condition. Bill Johnson, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, developed a restoration plan that involved silt removal, playa repair, and a native grass and forbs plant buffer around the playas' margins.

Playa lakes are effective vectors for groundwater recharge and water filtration, but that assumes they're in a healthy state.

Water, soil and habitat specialists discuss the causes of sedimentation and talk about playa restoration.

Darryl Birkenfeld / Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism

Many playas on federal grasslands in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, New Mexico and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles have pitted playas. There's a cooperative effort underway to rehab some of these playas. Restored playas mean shallow water will return. When that happens, plants will burst forth, providing seeds the birds like, and attracting insects, a good source of protein.

Dale Daniel

A functioning playa provides water to recharge the aquifer. There's also a whole community of wetland plants and invertebrates that need the very shallow water found in a healthy playa. These plants and invertebrates provide food for migrating birds. But when a playa has a pit, it is like "pulling the drain in a bathtub" and it no longer holds water very well. Rehabilitating playas by filling pits restores natural function to those wetlands.