Taking High Plains Conservation to Scale with Private Landowners: by not listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:07/02/2013 Updated:07/18/2013

Last week U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe announced a six-month delay in the Service’s decision on potentially listing the lesser prairie chicken (hereafter LEPC) as a threatened species. The decision to list will be delayed until 30 March 2014. This is a good decision in terms of: science, land management, public relations, economic impact and federal- state relations and cooperation.

The lesser prairie chicken resides almost entirely on private land. Its habitat is short and mixed grass prairie in five states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, 95% of which is privately owned, with a focus area of over 7 million acres of prime ranch and oil and gas lands. The 5 state fish and game agencies have produced a comprehensive range-wide conservation plan that is being amended and expanded on almost a monthly basis under the aegis of WAFWA, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Their plan is scientifically sound and it represents a good start, but these state agencies have never taken on a public relations and outreach program on this scale before.Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiaitve Logo

This represents new territory for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as well. Listing a species that dwells almost entirely on private lands – the only public lands are state preserves and USFS national grasslands – is an endeavor with an order of magnitude more difficult than your average species listing. The conservation of the lesser prairie chicken will require an unprecedented degree of cooperation from private land owners. As mentioned, this is high plains ranch country, and ranchers don’t get up in the morning thinking about how to comply with federal or state regulations as they sip their black coffee. Aside from the state range-wide plan, the Feds need to get their act together as well. In USDA’s comments to FWS on the proposed listing, the agency wrote: “Although the proposed rule is in many respects quite comprehensive, it does not accurately describe the scope and benefits of CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] to the LEPC range.” That is bureaucratese for USDA has invested a lot of money, time and effort in LEPC conservation, to wit, “CRP enrollment nationwide is 27 million acres, of which 5.5 million acres are located within LEPC occupied range.”

FWS’ proposed rule also “did not include new acres entering CRP, some 497,000 acres in five LEPC states.” State fish and game agencies work closely with USDA to target CRP delivery to specific conservation practices and geographic areas. USDA comments underscore the most important aspect of this conservation initiative: “A fundamental concern USDA has with the listing of the LEPC, is the potential impact on landowner willingness to participate in CRP. If landowners perceive participation in CRP as exposing them to increased regulatory liability under the Endangered Species Act, then it is likely that they will be unwilling to enroll in CRP,” which represents the most important conservation card in the Fed’s deck.

This type of conservation program will require unprecedented federal- state cooperation, communication and joint outreach to land owners. Nothing like this has been done in the last 25 years, but way back in the annals of endangered species recovery there is a successful precedent that should be adapted to the LEPC case file - The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). The agencies can’t help it with acronyms, sorry. In the mid-1980s, the grizzlies of Yellowstone were slowly but surely going extinct. The scientist were fighting (Craigheads v. NPS and Knight), the agencies were not cooperating; it was a mess. The IGBC was created to coordinate the research, management and PR/outreach and law enforcement activities of the pertinent federal agencies (NPS, FWS, USFS, BLM), and the four range states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. They held meetings twice a year at agency Regional Director (Fed), and state Fish and Game Director levels, with task forces assigned to subjective areas for implementation and they set firm recovery targets. In a little more than five years, the Grizz was on the road to recovery in Yellowstone and other designated ecosystems, and the bear has been above recovery targets for over a decade. This type of framework should be adopted for implementing cooperative conservation efforts across the lesser prairie chicken’s five range states. Participating ranchers should be rewarded and recognized as proud LEPC conservation ranchers. I’ve drawn up a sign.

We will host the WAFWA range wide plan on PLN and, as we secure funding for building a number of state conservation centers, such as Texas and Colorado, we shall host a comprehensive information platform for LEPC conservation initiatives. My bet is the ranchers will be up to the task, and this is one critter whose recovery will occur high, wide and handsome without federal regulation.

Photo and Video Courtesy of NRCS