The booming calls of the lesser prairie chicken once rung out across western Kansas.
Accounts from the 1800s mention bands of hunters bagging dozens of birds each. Railways advertised special trains that brought sportsmen to shoot the birds in the Texas panhandle, complete with ice cars to preserve the meat on the ride home.
Then, over a century of plowing prairies into farmland decimated the birds. More recently, droughts brought their numbers to an all-time recorded low in 2013.
Today, the birds aren’t listed as endangered, but they’re considered a conservation-dependent species — meaning without consistent protection they’ll go extinct.
For decades, endangered listings — and the regulations that come with them — have pulled animals back from the brink of extinction. In western Kansas, those restrictions hinder development, which is primarily oil and gas extraction.
To try and keep the birds off the endangered list, Kansas and nearby states are trying a new proactive plan. They’re telling developers, if you voluntarily help protect the birds, you’ll be exempt from future regulations.
Prairie chicken numbers are rising, so the approach may be working. But fewer and fewer developers are buying in, environmental groups see the approach as weak, and conservation-minded businesses say markets can save the birds.
“It's going to be a lot cheaper to get involved voluntarily right now,” said Jim Pitman, who is spearheading the voluntary conservation plan, “than it's going to be when somebody comes in from the federal government with a big hammer.”
Pitman is director of conservation at the Western Association for Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA, which created the plan in 2013. In it, if someone wants to drill for oil or gas or otherwise tackle a project that might damage prairie chicken territory, they have to pay up. The more likely the plans are to erode the bird’s home, the steeper the fee.
The benefits are twofold. First, it encourages industry to use sites that hurt prairie chickens the least. Second, the money pays ranchers to graze fewer cattle and improve their lands’ suitability for the birds.
“It can help make (ranchers) whole,” said Ethan Lane, a director at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, “for whatever losses they may incur from reducing their operations or taking down needed infrastructure.”
Ranchers, for example, might get paid to take down nearby telephone poles where a predatory hawk could perch.
The program, Pitman said, has preserved 150,000 acres of ranchland.
But the plan depends on developers voluntarily enrolling and participation has waned.
For every acre damaged by development, WAFWA preserves two acres of land elsewhere. That means to prevent an overall loss of habitat, half of the land being drilled or otherwise developed needs to be enrolled.
“Less than half of their impacts right now are being mitigated through our program,” Pitman said. “That's really not sufficient.”
To encourage developers to enroll and voluntarily pay mitigation fees, WAFWA can offer waivers, which exempt the developers from federal regulations if the species becomes listed as endangered species.
Pitman said after President Donald Trump was elected, the industry felt a federal endangered listing became unlikely, so WAFWA’s offer to exempt enrollees from future restrictions has become less enticing.
And the developers’ changed attitude now seems justified given a July proposal to strip back protections for threatened species and factor in economic impacts when determining how to list species.
Still, Pitman thinks developers who don’t enroll are short-sighted.
“Even if this administration doesn't list the bird, politics always change,” Pitman said. “If the bird is still in peril, and we’re still losing habitat at the rate we are now, at some point we’re going to go back through this process again.”
Wayne Walker, founder of the private conservation bank Common Ground Capital, said WAFWA’s plan isn’t working.
If it was, Walker said, “we wouldn’t have this regulatory endangered species listing staring us in the face.”
Walker believes in WAFWA’s general approach. Yet he thinks his company can make wiser investments. His firm would work with ranchers to improve their land for prairie chickens.
Then his company would sell mitigation credits to the highest-bidding developers in an open market. Walker wants developers who buy his credits to be given waivers from future regulations, the way companies who participate with WAFWA are. So far, negotiations between the wildlife agency and the conservation bankers have stalled.
Conservation banks, Walker said, are better equipped to protect the bird because they have business expertise that wildlife agencies lack.
“It takes all the biology they understand,” Walker said. “But it marries it with this complicated business world that they really haven’t ever dealt with.”
Walker said because WAFWA offers standardized rates to ranchers for enrolling their land, it’s led to scattershot conservation throughout the region.
Instead, he said, the priority should be permanently protecting continuous swaths of land and forming strongholds for the birds. Walker argues large stretches of unbroken rangeland have become a scarce resource. States and federal wildlife agencies must acknowledge that and pay steeper market-based prices to conserve them.
Christian Hagen, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University, said a limited budget for conservation creates tough choices.
“Are we better off … trying to make these permanent easements on these small, but ... important properties?” said Hagen, referring to Walker’s conservation banking model. “Or should we be really trying to focus our efforts on maximizing quality over a much broader landscape?”
Hagen’s research shows that the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to revert cropland into grassland, has benefitted prairie chickens by increasing habitat and reconnecting prairies that had been fragmented by farms.
He said there aren’t yet studies assessing the impact of what WAFWA is doing, but he thinks it should help the bird in much the same way. That said, he warns restoring habitat and prairie chicken populations will take time.
“The thing that we all have to remember is that it took us at least 150 years to get here,” Hagen said. “We can't expect miracles in five years.”
A new count of lesser prairie chickens was released in early July. The aerial survey indicated there are now nearly 40,000 lesser prairie chickens — about 10,000 more than last year. But the numbers are still far below the 67,000 birds that WAFWA is aiming for. Experts warn that this year’s drought will likely lower next year’s numbers.
To list or not to list
Hagen said protecting the lesser prairie chicken will be challenging. For example, regulations saved the bald eagle by banning a single chemical, DDT, but the prairie chicken’s main threat is habitat destruction. Over 90 percent of its remaining habitat is on privately-owned land.
That makes prairie chickens difficult to safeguard even if the bird does get re-listed as endangered.
“You can regulate chemical out of the environment. That's really easy. You cannot regulate a producer to come into your office, sign up for a conservation program, and go do that conservation on his land,” Hagen said. “You could make the regulation, but trying to actually enforce them and implement them just becomes an impossibility.”
Bethany Cotton is wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians, a group that’s petitioned for the lesser prairie chicken to be listed as endangered. She said despite the fact that the lion’s share of habitat is on private land, an endangered listing would still help increase funds for conservation and protect the birds that are on public land.
“There is a level of complication there that doesn't exist with some species, but it does exist at least partially with nearly all species,” Cotton said. “(Lesser prairie chickens) really do warrant the protections of the Endangered Species Act.”
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said a listing may also benefit the birds by commissioning a recovery plan. He said that a federally commissioned recovery plan would be an improvement over WAFWA’s plan, which he fears is overly influenced by local industry.
“Things besides the value of the habitat for the species start to come into play,” Greenwald said. “How valuable is that land? How much how much oil is under that land? … Things like that start to creep in.”
However, newly proposed federal regulations would advise officials not to ignore those economic impacts as they used to, but rather to make determinations based on both the “best scientific and commercial data.”
This fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide whether to re-list the Lesser Prairie Chicken. That will be based partly on whether it thinks WAFWA’s plan is adequately protecting the bird.
With the climate and landscape changing dynamically, predicting the fate of the bird is difficult. Hagen, the ecologist, warns that the true test of the plan, and the future of the birds, may not have yet occurred.
“Oil prices have been relatively low for a number of years now,” Hagen said. “The real test of this program will come to fruition when we see barrels of oil reaching some threshold price that folks get a little more assertive about drilling.”
Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @Ben_Kuebrich.
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