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To Ranchers, Lesser Prairie Chickens Just Mean More Government

An odd-looking grouse with an intricate mating dance is at the center of an intense battle over wildlife conservation among energy companies, the federal government, Texas officials and environmental advocates.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Lesser Prairie Chicken

LUBBOCK — An odd-looking grouse with an intricate mating dance is at the center of an intense battle over wildlife conservation among energy companies, Texas officials and environmental advocates and the federal government.

But as is frequently the case in debates about threatened species, the private landowner has the most at stake — and often seems absent from the negotiating table.

That is especially true for Texas and the lesser prairie chicken, whose U.S. population has decreased to 17,000 from 34,000 in the past year. The bird is believed to roam on 3 million acres of mostly private property in the western portion of the state and the Texas Panhandle. Ranchers own and operate much of the native grassland prairie that the chicken loves, and are crucial to conserving the species. If protections for the chicken are to work, the ranchers must overcome their suspicion of any efforts associated with government.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may decide by March whether to list the bird as  threatened. Should that happen, landowners could be subject to hefty fines and jail time under the Endangered Species Act if the birds are harmed on their property. Dozens of other species in Texas will be up for such listings in the coming years.

“This is very serious, and it very well could put our 100-year operation out of business,” said Evertt Harrel, whose West Texas family cattle ranch has long been a home to lesser prairie chickens. A chunk of it, like many in Texas, is leased for oil and gas activities.

Harrel’s face is familiar to state and federal officials at nearly every public meeting on the topic. But as are most ranchers, he is skeptical of participating in government programs that pay them to conserve land, even though the payments would help offset huge income losses in the face of drought.

“Everybody’s just too busy trying to make a living to survive the drought, pay their taxes and put food on the table,” said Jeff Haley, who also raises cattle on chicken habitat near the Oklahoma border in the Texas Panhandle. “They’re resentful of the fact that outside forces would be trying to tell them what they can and can’t do on their own place.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and similar agencies in nearby states hope ranchers will embrace an idea known as the Range-wide Plan. Oil and gas companies would offset disturbances to the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat by paying landowners a fixed amount to maintain the birds’ habitat on their own land. The plan aims to quadruple the bird’s population without the need for a federal listing.

There is already “some evidence of the interest of the ranching community,” said Carter Smith, the Texas department’s executive director. More than 500,000 acres of land are already enrolled in voluntary agreements with the federal government to protect ranchers against liability if the bird is listed. But that only represents roughly 60 landowners who have signed such agreements, including Haley.

It does not help that solutions offered to encourage the bird’s conservation explicitly mention the lesser prairie chicken, whose name has become synonymous with the threat of federal regulation. The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has already been paying landowners to conserve habitat across the Southwest, but as news of a possible threatened species listing spread, interest waned.

“If you call it something else, like ‘conservation initiative,’ they’ll sign up,” joked Stanley Bradbury, who works in the federal agency’s Lubbock office.

Such a name could work because both cattle and the birds are best raised on healthy prairie grassland. The state and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy are working to create a managed refuge of more than 12,000 acres in West Texas for lesser prairie chickens — some of which ranchers could also lease as ideal grassland for cattle grazing.

“What we’re doing here really isn’t about the prairie chicken,” said Russell Martin, a state wildlife biologist. “When I talk to landowners, I won’t even bring prairie chickens up unless they bring it up.”

The birds thrive in prairies where tall, colorful grasses and weeds dominate. They can nest in the grass, hidden from predators, and eat the seeds of weeds. But if cows eat too much grass, that hurts the sustainability of both ranching operations and the prairie chicken.

So Martin and Bradbury often suggest “rotational grazing,” or moving cattle from one pasture to another, giving the grass time to recover. By trampling the grass with their hooves, the cattle also pack the soil and promote weed growth — a task historically done by bison running across the prairie.

Prescribed fires could then recreate the natural regeneration process usually done by wildfires. Even oil and gas wells could exist on such land if the density of tall structures that prairie chickens fear is limited.

Harrel said he and many other ranchers are already using some of these techniques. But he is wary of turning those into contracts with the government, even if it protects him from liability.

“You’re afraid they’re going to move into your house after mowing your yard,” he said.

Another approach, proposed by the Environmental Defense Fund and several large oil and gas companies, could be more amenable to government skeptics. That plan also would pay landowners to conserve chicken habitat, but a private foundation would be in charge. Compensation would be based on supply and demand, in a market system known as a “wildlife habitat exchange.” Details of the plan are not available, however, because backers say they are “proprietary.”

Gov. Rick Perry and the governors of four other Southwestern states have backed the Range-wide Plan, which has gone through four iterations of public comment and drafts. But Susan Combs, the state’s comptroller, says that oil and gas interests have too much to lose under that approach. And some wildlife advocates say neither strategy provides enough permanent habitat to the birds.

But all agree that landowners must support whatever conservation measures are put in place, and many think that what happens in Texas could be a model for the country.

“I think it should be the wave of the future,” said Joy Zedler, a University of Wisconsin botany professor who has studied the exchange concept for wetlands conservation.

“When one landowner provides resources for the public good,” she said, “a little ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

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