As I See It — Lesser prairie chickens deserve more than hollow promises

06/10/2014 3:50 PM

06/10/2014 3:50 PM

As a biologist and lifelong resident of the West, my work has allowed me the gift of time spent amid the wide-open wonder of the fast-disappearing prairies that are home to the even faster disappearing lesser prairie chicken.

Because these fascinating birds — famous for the exuberant clucking, strutting and hopping of their mating rituals — have been an emphasis of my conservation work in recent years, no one wants to trust in the recently announced federal plan to protect them any more than I do.

Unfortunately the facts — especially history and science — simply won’t allow it.

The major reason these charismatic birds have lost 90 percent of their historic habitat is not in question — it’s because of the landscape’s unfettered destruction by oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines.

Thanks to decades of unchecked industrial pressure, coupled with severe drought, last year alone the prairie chicken’s population declined to fewer than 18,000 birds — nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 estimates.

But instead of following the scientific facts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose to follow the politics. And that’s why the conservation group I work for joined two other organizations to take legal action to force the service to follow the Endangered Species Act and do everything possible to avert extinction of the lesser prairie chicken.

By listing these iconic birds as merely “threatened,” instead of as “endangered,” the service opened the door to a state-run habitat conservation plan as the primary tool for trying to protect the bird.

Beyond being completely voluntary and unenforceable, the range-wide conservation plan organized by the states of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas hands the primary responsibility for conserving the prairie chicken to the same industries largely responsible for pushing it toward extinction.

Under the plan, habitat-destroying activities by parties that voluntarily enroll would be allowed to continue killing prairie chickens and destroying habitat without penalty.

The experimental conservation plan is inadequate to prevent extinction for three reasons:

It sets a low 10-year population goal of just 67,000 birds that will not be sufficiently resilient to drought conditions and natural disturbances.

It designates habitat “focal areas” that are a fraction of the size required to maintain healthy breeding populations, a limitation that will lead to inbreeding and reduced fitness.

It offers no reasonable expectation of enforcement to ensure the bird’s survival and recovery.

Unfortunately, the states’ conservation plan is very likely to drive the prairie chicken into an even more precarious state than it is today, making recovery efforts — which Fish and Wildlife said were warranted more than 15 years ago — even more difficult to achieve.

For instance, an agreement between the federal government and oil and gas companies will allow new drilling to kill about half of the remaining population of the birds in exchange for money that will be used to manage habitat somewhere else.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s unsubstantiated complaint that protecting threatened species will “jeopardize” industry is nothing more than wild rhetoric based on the same thinking that helped push the prairie chicken toward extinction. It has more to do with protecting his political base than securing the livelihoods of Kansans.

The sad truth is that the states’ plan offers more certainty to industry than it does to prairie chickens. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that voluntary agreements of industry permit a “take” of 1,324 birds, or more than 7.5 percent of the remaining population, every year.

All things being equal, the party will be over within 20 years.

These iconic birds that have long roamed Western grasslands deserve more than a hollow promise of protection. The scientific facts make it irrefutably clear that the lesser prairie chicken needs the immediate and full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals it protects.

Anything less is likely to condemn these birds to the fate of the passenger pigeon.

Jay Lininger is a senior scientist with the Arizona.-based Center for Biological Diversity.

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