Please upgrade your browser

Riggsbee, Williams: Prairie chicken conservation program needs help

February 26th, 2016 | Posted in Articles

In the almost two years since the lesser prairie chicken was added to America’s endangered species list, we have watched its recovery program — the rangewide plan, a five-state government collaborative — struggle to meet federal government standards.

U.S. Department of Justice filings during ongoing federal district court litigation in Texas show fatal flaws in the program. Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote of “crucial deficiencies” in a recent letter to the rangewide plan administrator, the Western Alliance of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA.

While we acknowledge the plan is unprecedented in its scale and degree of interstate collaboration, its challenges are persistent and potentially unassailable. Without immediate intervention, the lesser prairie chicken population is unlikely to recover.

According to rangewide plan objectives and Fish and Wildlife Service policy specific to the lesser prairie chicken, permanent conservation — and lots of it, in the right places — is needed if the bird is going to recover. However, we see no sign that WAFWA is positioned to invest in permanent protection of core habitat meeting Fish and Wildlife’s standards. Nor are there indications that they will take advantage of Fish and Wildlife-approved conservation banks where private investors partner with private ranchers to permanently protect, manage and fund currently occupied habitat.

Instead, WAFWA has chosen to pay low annual fees to landowners agreeing to temporarily protect marginal habitat located mostly outside of the rangewide plan’s priority areas. This is the same sort of program that was ineffective in keeping the lesser prairie chicken off the endangered list in the first place.

So while the rangewide plan struggles to meet its objectives, we find ourselves with only about 29,000 birds surviving in portions of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. In Texas, the numbers continue to decline. Even with the downturn in oil prices, our state’s lesser prairie chicken population is still under threat from continued development in the Permian Basin, and renewable energy developments are a prolonged threat with the recent renewal of federal tax credits for those projects.

Despite WAFWA’s best efforts, the rangewide plan is going nowhere. The federal government must consider other options in the very near term if the species is going to recover and if the states are going to be allowed to play a role in Endangered Species Act challenges.

To date, the rangewide plan’s presence has precluded federal approval of alternative programs that would achieve high conservation standards through competitive market-based mechanisms. We must shift to investing more funds in proven tools, such as permanently protected conservation banks, rather than spending it on what effectively amounts to renting property at low rates where the birds do not necessarily exist.

A number of environmentally conscious energy developers stand ready to meet high mitigation standards, including the purchase of permanent conservation bank credits. Doing so immediately conserves thousands of acres of habitat in Texas and beyond while also protecting energy developers from future liability under the Endangered Species Act.

Private conservation bankers have established three conservation strongholds — approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service — in the places where WAFWA has said focus is needed most but where the state-led program has stalled. These projects would also keep the properties in private hands.

By partnering with landowners, such efforts have secured Fish and Wildlife approval of a 3,000-acre lesser prairie chicken conservation bank in Texas, with another 10,000 acres soon to be proposed in eastern New Mexico. This is some of the best remaining habitat in this part of the bird’s range, though WAFWA’s administration of the rangewide plan has thus far excluded the use of these permanent conservation projects in favor of temporary protection of marginal habitat.

Extinction is forever, so there is no time to waste making a course correction. Landowners deserve to realize the full value of responsibly protecting a scarce resource — and the lesser prairie chicken deserves a chance at recovery. We are prepared to support WAFWA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by providing the permanent conservation the species needs; however, that requires WAFWA to recognize the value in and the immediate need of permanent conservation.

From The Austin American-Statesman