The Lesser Prairie Chicken and WAFWA’s Range-wide Conservation Plan

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) is a regional association of state fish and game agencies that have spearheaded state management of the Lesser Prairie Chicken (LPC). This plan relies on private landowners, as stewards of 95% of LPC habitat, to enter into voluntary conservation programs in order to conserve LPC habitat. These programs provide technical information and funding for private land conservation. The Range-wide plan offers the greatest amount of flexibility and autonomy for private landowners, ensuring that they can continue to work their land, as opposed to listing the species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Range-wide plan implements a stronghold concept for habitat conservation. This means that areas identified as crucial habitat and connectivity zones will be targeted for entry into habitat conservation programs. These habitat areas will be identified in four eco-regions that span five states; Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. The eco-regions are described according to the dominant vegetation; sand shinnery oak, short grass, mixed grass and sand sagebrush.

The Range-wide plan identifies a wide variety of public and private conservation programs that are already in place that can be used to preserve LPC habitat, while also ensuring that private landowners can continue to work their land. There are Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency programs that have been shown to increase wildlife habitat and support farming, ranching, and forestland management. It identifies Land Trusts and conservation organizations that can help private landowners place conservation easements on their land to permanently preserve LPC habitat and ensure their farm, ranch and forestland remains working for generations to come. There are also a wide range of state programs that can aid private landowners in funding conservation on their land.

The key part of the plan is that when private landowners agree to participate in these voluntary programs, creating a management plan for the LPC, they can enter into a WAFWA Conservation Agreement. This agreement provides assurances to private landowners that if they help conserve LPC habitat now, if the species is listed down the road, then they will not face additional regulations.

RFF believes that listing the LPC as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act is not the most efficient and effective tool for species recovery and will result in shutting down rural economies.

The Endangered Species Act was created in the 1970s when a suite of environmental regulations were implemented. At that point, our country saw the importance of placing lands strictly out of development in order to save threatened species no matter what the cost. The Endangered Species Act does not allow for regulators to factor in economic impacts in considering whether to place a species on the list. However, today’s environment requires a different conservation strategy. Working landscapes and natural resource protection must be balanced to ensure that species are preserved and rural economies can continue to provide the food, energy, and fiber that our country relies on.

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act, is experiencing an enormous backlog in addressing threatened and endangered species. Only 56 of the 2,105 species ever listed have been delisted, amounting to a less than 1% success rate because some species are delisted due to extinction. Some have argued that this is because many species are projected to recover in a certain amount of years and that deadline has not been reached yet. However, what these views do not take into consideration is what would happen if private landowners were given more authority and funding for species management. Private landowners have a stake in the natural resources on their land, plus they are the most effective stewards of those resources. In encouraging collaboration and not threats of regulation, we can encourage enhanced species recovery.

For example, the LPC requires a variety of different kinds of habitat to survive. They need taller grasses to brood in and shorter to mate in. Thus, human alteration, such as burning and grazing, can be beneficial to LPC habitat conservation and species recovery when done correctly. If the species is listed, private landowners will be restricted in their ability to touch their land and habitat variations will not occur. On the other hand, without knowledge, tools and funding to properly manage land for LPC habitat, private landowners may continue to foster poor LPC habitat and species decline. 

Second, the Endangered Species Act requires that critical habitat for a species must be identified by a certain deadline. Critical habitat is the core area which must be preserved for species recovery. However, only one third of species listed in the U.S. have critical habitat officially designated, preventing proper management actions to be taken to preserve the species (A Citizen’s Guide to the ESA, EarthJustice, 2003). Moreover, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated that approximately $153 million is required to list all of the species that need protection, but in 2003 the listing program received only $9 million to do so, and that trend has continued (A Citizen’s Guide to the ESA, EarthJustice, 2003). It is clear that the government cannot fully fund and support this program, so other resources must be tapped in order for effective species management and recovery.

The most logical solution to this backlog is to partner with private landowners and engage with them to promote habitat conservation. They have the local and institutional knowledge required to ensure that the species can recover. In doing so, we must recognize that habitat conservation and working landscapes are not mutually exclusive. In fact, ensuring that both can occur will bring many private landowners on board and perpetuate a win-win solution.

Long term species conservation and the success of rural economies require that we engage with private landowners. They are the key stewards of our country’s land, owning more than 71% in the lower 48 states, and their land is some of the most productive and resource rich land in our country. RFF recognizes that the needs of private landowners and our natural resources are not mutually exclusive and supports the Range-wide plan for efficient and effective LPC recovery.