Prairie chicken needs protection

........................................................................................................................................................................................

There was a bit of sorrow this April in the village of Milnesand, N.M. — akin to the sadness Magdalena experienced just last month. Milnesand’s annual Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival had been cancelled — due, apparently, to drought significantly diminishing the numbers of wild “chickens,” a wondrous cousin of the sage grouse.

Hundreds of visitors had been expected to visit tiny Milnesand the third weekend in April, as they have the previous seven years, bringing a boon to that burg in southern Roosevelt County. Prairie chicken devotees come to witness the birds’ outrageous courtship ritual, full of color, sound and fury. But this spring, the fans from afar did not make the trip.

The recent lessening of the lesser prairie chicken is a timely illustration of why in November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the species be designated “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The “lesser prairie” now dwells on a mere 15 percent of its historic range — the short-grass prairies of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Texas, in fact, has lost 93 percent of this fancy ground-bird’s home range. Oil and gas development, cropland conversion, intensive stocking of grazers, power lines, wind farms, simple fencing — and now climate stress — together take their toll.

While the final decision on granting the “LPC” threatened status will be announced in September, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund has swung into action. EDF designed and is promoting the fairly new concept of Wildlife Habitat Exchanges. Their stated mission is to link “science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships” to restore natural ecosystems. Here’s how the Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Exchange would function:

Most of the LPC’s remaining territory is on private land. Thus, farmers and ranchers who voluntarily create, maintain and expand habitat for the threatened species will earn marketable credits for their efforts. These credits are saleable to energy companies and other land developers planning projects that would impact or destroy known prairie chicken range.

So the agricultural producers are financially rewarded for restoring and growing LPC habitat, while heavy industry is permitted, upon purchasing the exchange credits, to continue or expand production, despite having a critically threatened species underfoot and jeopardizing those particular populations further. Ahh — desperate measures for desperate times.

EDF is currently working with energy companies and agricultural groups like cattlemen’s associations to set up the Habitat Exchange for the LPC. The program’s literature states, “This approach can turn a potentially contentious political battle into a positive framework for wildlife recovery and economic prosperity.”

The plan has its detractors — those who are loath to see any prime remaining prairie chicken grounds fall under the blades of real estate development or extractive energy site expansion. Concerned skeptics cannot bear the callousness of marketing conservation credits so that polluting or otherwise detrimental projects can continue to turn a profit.

But EDF points out that current efforts to save the lesser prairie chicken by other means are failing and the Habitat Exchange offers “a new, fast and cost-effective framework for conservation” of a glorious avian species, while avoiding years of battle in courts. It is uncharted territory and the stakes are humblingly high. The merchants of Milnesand can attest to that.

Yet perhaps a Wildlife Habitat Exchange program, focused on preserving the grand ‘lesser’ prairie chicken, will be worth the trouble.

Sources: Texas Farm Bureau, USFWS, Endangered Species Law & Policy, EDF Solutions