The recent dual proposal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the iconic prairie grouse species is a blow to recent efforts, but sets up CRP and other incentive-based programs to shine
It’s one of the most dreaded announcements a North American government agency can make: a species has been proposed to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Likely, for one who pays attention to this sort of thing, the announcement that the lesser prairie-chicken had been suggested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be re-listed was painful but not unexpected. According to the USFWS, it’s estimated that the species’ range has been reduced by as much as 90% from its historic dispersal.
The proposal to list the bird as endangered, however, only applies to the Southern Distinct Population Segment (DPS) in eastern New Mexico and the southwest portion of the Texas Panhandle. The Northern DPS in Oklahoma, southeast Colorado, and western and south-central Kansas has been proposed to be listed as threatened.
Ted Koch, a retired endangered species biologist and executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership, was one of the folks that saw the writing on the wall.
“I guess I had a sense of inevitability,” Koch said. “It was clear; we continued to lose habitat. Chicken numbers bounce up and down depending on rainfall and there have been some like WAFWA’s mitigation framework that have improved habitat on some existing areas occupied by chickens, and that’s probably helped. But the overall trend is undeniable, so the listing under the Endangered Species Act seemed inevitable.”
And while a disappointing development, there was a chance to mitigate population and habitat loss while maintaining energy-sector projects in the range a few years ago. In September 2015, a federal judge ruled in favor of several New Mexico counties and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association’s lawsuit challenging the 2014 “threatened” listing of the lesser prairie-chicken. This court decision was made with the stipulation that there were programs in place to mitigate damage to the bird’s habitat for energy developers to cooperate with, such as the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Lesser Prairie-Chicken Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for Oil and Gas.
Yet, since the 2015 court decision, conservation practices in the bird’s southern range of Texas and New Mexico—specifically voluntary ones—have not kept up with needed goals for the lesser prairie-chicken. Amy Lueders, a regional director with USFWS, noted this in a call with reporters that was published in The Washington Post.
“Voluntary conservation efforts ‘have not kept pace with the threats facing lesser prairie-chicken, and remain challenges conserving the species for the long term,’” the Post reads.
And while politics are now certainly at the forefront of the lesser prairie-chicken battle, Koch believes some of the current and future tensions could have been avoided during the Trump Administration. But more on that in a moment; first, we look at the implications of a listing under the Endangered Species Act and how we got to this point once again.
The history of the Kansas stronghold and why private land management is needed
To understand the path to listing, we look to Kansas. The lesser prairie-chicken has been pivotal in the Sunflower State, and Kansas Department of Parks, Wildlife, and Tourism Small Game Coordinator Kent Fricke recollected what the bird means.
“The lesser prairie-chicken has been one of our key species in the southwestern part of the state,” Fricke said. “Historically, the sand sagebrush ecoregion—that southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado portion—was the primary stronghold for lesser prairie-chickens in the entire range, but populations have significantly declined over time.”
Fricke also noted the Conservation Reserve Program’s (CRP) role in the stabilization, enhancement, and expansion of the Northern DPS.
“The mixed-grass portion in south-central Kansas has remained relatively stable over time but the big expansion that has occurred in lesser prairie-chickens has been in that shortgrass/CRP mosaic ecoregion of western Kansas. With the implementation of the program in the 1980s—we had a big influx of CRP in Western Kansas—the lesser prairie-chicken expanded its range northward.
“We’ve seen significant expansion in the last 40 years because CRP fields provided extra vegetative structure that is especially important for nesting habitat. All that said, lesser prairie-chickens have had a vital role in the ecological nature of western Kansas for a long time and have demonstrated the positive impacts voluntary conservation programs can have for an upland bird species.”
While a listing is hard news, it’s not the end of a species—just a means to restore it with fewer interruptions. These interruptions come from a variety of sources—renewable and non-renewable energy development, large-scale agriculture, invasive species—and over time have led to severe habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, and thus declining bird populations. The reason for the dual listing, however, is that the species is spread across four ecoregions.
“Lesser prairie-chickens, like all other prairie grouse species—greater prairie-chickens, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse—are grassland-dependent species,” Fricke said. “Not only do they require grassland habitats, they require large landscapes of grass. As a rule of thumb, areas of contiguous grassland of at least 50,000 acres are needed to support sustainable lesser prairie-chicken populations at a local scale.
“Additionally, they are very averse to vertical structures, whether that’s a tree, an oil well, or power poles. What this proposed listing highlights are the factors lesser prairie-chickens are susceptible to: habitat fragmentation, degraded habitat quality, and loss of grassland habitat. It also highlights the extent to which those factors are occurring at broad, landscape scales throughout the southern Great Plains. That said, we’ve made encouraging progress through voluntary conservation efforts that have helped slow and even reverse population declines.”
The history of habitat loss and fragmentation in the Southern Plains
While many will push all of the blame on the energy sector for the lesser prairie-chicken’s listing, it isn’t entirely at fault; other factors have also played a significant role.
“The vast majority of species threatened with extinction today in America are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation,” Koch said. “While disease and predation and other factors can sometimes play a role, it’s usually discreet, whereas habitat loss is the long-term trend that carries the narrative. That’s true with lesser prairie-chickens in this case. Most of the habitat loss occurred many decades ago by agricultural conversation breaking up native prairies. And degradation by overgrazing—not grazing, but overgrazing—has been a contributing factor. Most recently, energy development has been a primary factor.”
Further, while intense wildfires and the vast expansion of cheatgrass and other annual grasses haven’t played a large role in the lesser prairie-chicken range, other invasives have weakened the ecosystem.
So how bad is the habitat loss? According to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, from 2014-18, grasslands disappeared at an average rate of four football fields per minute.
Knowing the problems, the question now is: how do we fix it? According to Koch, it’s a simple process and we already have everything we need.
The private-land fix
To Koch and Fricke, the best opportunity to fix this large-scale habitat problem is to begin to reinforce conservation and management opportunities on private land. Through programs such as CRP, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can target private landowners either currently enrolled in the CRP for re-enrollment or landowners with fields in row crop agriculture that, if enrolled in the CRP and converted to grass cover, would add to the existing habitat on the landscape. But, instead of the model they’ve been using, Koch says the NRCS needs to be more precise.
“This is the key: we have the programs and the funding to get the job done. All we need is a strategic and focused approach to implementing these Farm Bill programs,” Koch said. “What that means is, knocking on the doors of the right landowners and offering them real, meaningful compensation for implementing the will of all Americans. Traditionally, what NRCS does is announce a program county-wide and then wait in their office for landowners to walk in and sign up. Which is fine if you do not have a specific goal in mind like conserving an endangered species. But if you want to conserve an endangered species, you can’t have just any landowner in the county knock on your door. You have to go knock on the door of the right landowners with the best habitat and offer them a good deal.
“That’s the difference, that’s the trick. That’s what will save lesser prairie-chickens—that proactive, strategic, focused approach. Not the reactive, random acts of kindness approach. That won’t work. It’s not that much to ask. Now, NRCS doesn’t like to do that because if they knock on this person’s door and give them a good deal, then their neighbor’s going to say, ‘Hey, do that for me,’ and NRCS has to say, ‘Sorry, you don’t have any chickens.’ And they don’t like doing that, but that’s what it’s going to take if we’re going to conserve chickens.”
Fricke didn’t want to put too much pressure on CRP, though he did share a similar line of thinking as Koch.
“Not to rely too much on CRP, but it’s the best example we have,” Fricke said. “A landowner, to no fault of his or her own, is going to make the best economic choice for their operation. That said, in many cases, the decision to go to row crop agriculture can be a more financially suitable decision. But, if incentives are provided to keep fields already enrolled in CRP in the program, we should take advantage of opportunities to do that. In the same way, CRP is an extremely important aspect of things, and recent changes and modifications to the program have been really good in terms of incentivizing landowner enrollment and re-enrollment.”
Those recent revisions to CRP Fricke mentioned include increased rental payments and more sign-up incentives for landowners, signaling that now is the time to put money in the pockets of American agricultural producers to enhance grassland habitats to benefit lesser prairie-chicken populations.
“The overall message and real hope for the future applies to lesser prairie-chickens but also speaks to other prairie grouse species is that—using the lesser prairie-chicken as an example—95 percent of the land ownership within the lesser prairie-chicken range is private,” Fricke said. “With so much private land ownership, the fate of the bird is closely linked with private land management. In that way, landowners have the opportunity to do good things for the lesser prairie-chicken and prairie grouse species.
“As management agencies, we’re always looking for opportunities to partner with landowners and meet their habitat goals and management objectives for their property while also providing the needed habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. I would encourage those who own or manage land, or know somebody within the lesser prairie-chicken range, to have a conversation about what their property and habitat goals may look like, and how we can sustain lesser prairie-chicken habitat into the future and overcome some of these challenges of habitat fragmentation, quality, and loss within the range. I think this is a great opportunity to highlight the good things that are happening on private lands within the lesser prairie-chicken range.”
A missed opportunity, the need to get the right people at the table
While two different political spheres either commend or condemn former Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for his time at the helm, Koch knows he is a staunch ally for wildlife. Yet, Koch also knows he was friendly with the oil and gas lobby, saying Bernhardt was “an oil and gas lobbyist” who missed an incredible opportunity to play the middle man in protecting and enhancing the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat.
“I briefed then-Deputy Sec. David Bernhardt on listing the lesser prairie-chicken,” Koch said. “He totally understood it and chose not to act until a court required him to act, and then he set a deadline for after the November 2020 election. I respect David Bernhardt. He’s very intelligent and he, in my opinion, would know how to talk to oil and gas about implementing programs to conserve chickens. But he apparently chose not to apply himself in that way. That is a missed opportunity.
“I told David this myself. I try not to judge him for that; I’m sure he had his reasons. I suspect they were political and didn’t want to have to deal with this hot potato before the 2020 election. I get it. Every administration does this; it’s not unique to the Trump Administration.”
Now, with the Biden Administration in office—which has postponed future oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters while allowing previous leases to remain active—it won’t be as easy to get industry executives and representatives at the table. This is especially true with previous comments by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who took critical questioning during her confirmation hearing for comments she made about the oil and gas industry as a New Mexico Representative.
Despite those comments, she recently spoke at the Interior’s public forum on the federal oil and gas program noting she will continue to work side by side with oil and gas and coal companies to responsibly produce energy while working towards the Biden Administration’s renewable energy goals.
“My ancestors made subtle but constant changes, century after century, to how they farmed and cared for the land, because they knew it was their obligation to leave a sustainable planet to me and to us,” Haaland said. “We, too, must take a longer view. Right now, more than ever, we need hopeful, practical, and honest thinking about our public lands and waters that belong to every American. I look forward to working with you, and federal, state, local, and Tribal leaders, to bring a measure of common purpose to how we manage America’s public lands and waters, and the oil, gas, and minerals they hold.”
Koch is hesitant, however, to say they’ve got the right people to bring these stakeholders together.
“Under the Biden Administration, their heart may be in the right place but I’m not certain of their ability to carry the conversation,” he said. “If the Biden Administration hires on some good folks that can help carry the water for lesser prairie-chickens, that’s great. I don’t know that to be the case right now. And the Biden Administration has nothing to do with the proposal to list lesser prairie-chickens. That decision was made a long time ago under the Trump Administration. The Biden Administration is simply inheriting this.”
And, in the meantime, the five states in the bird’s range will continue to do their due diligence in working with federal agencies to enact sound practices using the best available science.
“In 2013, the five states finalized a range-wide conservation plan for lesser prairie-chickens, and within that plan they identified key habitat and population goals that they felt would, if attained, create a sustainable prairie-chicken population that wouldn’t have to be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” Fricke said. “Through the plan, we track conservation efforts and determine how things have or have not changed on the landscape. The increased discussion in the last few months provides an excellent opportunity for us to continue that conservation plan, work with our conservation partners and landowners, and talk realistically about how existing conservation programs can be improved and what new approaches are needed to benefit prairie-chicken populations.”
Still, there’s hope for the lesser prairie-chicken and its fragmented habitat to flourish alongside the need for energy development, farming, and ranching. It’s just going to come down to the right type of management and working with all conservation partners and stakeholders to find the right balance.
“We’ve done this before,” Koch said. “You’ve just got to be proactive and have NRCS step outside their comfort zone and go after the right landowners in the right way and we can do this.”
Andrew Spellman is an award-winning photojournalist and author, as well as the editor or ProjectUpland.com and managing editor of both Project Upland and Hunting Dog Confidential Magazines. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, Andrew's work has appeared in multiple newspapers and magazines. He is also an avid hunter and angler who enjoys chasing varying game in his pocket of Appalachia.