The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is due to announce its final decision on whether to list the prairie chicken as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act in June. If the FWS chooses to list this species, it would require the designation and protection of critical habitat, put in place criminal penalties for harming the bird, and require industry to mitigate any negative impacts it may have. she has on the species.
If we have any hope of saving the Greater Greater Prairie-Chicken from extinction, listing the bird as endangered is essential. While states like New Mexico have worked hard to turn the tide of the little prairie chicken, unfortunately, results matter and, as all breeders know, you don’t put food on the table with effort. Results are needed, and current and past efforts have failed to deliver. Since official nationwide bird monitoring began in the 1960s, Greater Prairie-Chicken populations have declined by 97% across their range. This decline is one of the most precipitous of any bird in the United States and will ultimately lead to extinction if left untreated.
Ensuring the future existence of this bird will have a cost. In the limited areas where the species dwells, it requires a wide open grassland landscape devoid of vertical structures – e.g. trees, power lines, drilling rigs, etc. – with healthy stands of native grasses and herbaceous plants. Fossil fuel and renewable energy production is incompatible with the habitat conditions these birds require, as is overgrazing of livestock – meaning these activities will need to be curtailed in areas designated as “critical habitat” to the bird.
But these costs do not necessarily have to come with conflicts. FWS has taken steps to create an Incidental Take Permit that energy companies can apply for, allowing them to mitigate their predicted impact at a rate of 2:1. This means that for every acre of lesser capercaillie habitat disturbed, two will be created, a boon for the bird and a means to provide a predictable regulatory environment for the industry. Unlike previous programs where funds were used in a way that was not always strategically targeted to the bird, in this program industry funds will be used to protect and restore what the bird needs most. need: conservation strongholds. This idea from Conservation Banking could turn out to be the way forward that will save the bird while meeting the needs of the industry.
Local pastoralists and landowners should also be supported in their efforts to practice sustainable grazing practices. Large hoofed pasture animals are not the enemy of the chicken. In fact, these birds evolved to live on the prairie alongside another symbol of the west, the American bison. And although domestic cattle are not a perfect substitute for bison, steps can be taken to create similar habitat conditions through their grazing by rotating cattle on pasture, allowing areas to rest and reducing stocking rates in times of drought.
An endangered listing for this species would spur massive federal investment in the state of this landscape.
Through voluntary grants provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, livestock producers will be eligible to receive payments covering the costs of fencing improvements, water development, brush removal and other practices that improve their results while improving the habitat.
Additionally, the National Audubon Society has developed the Audubon Conservation Ranching program, which provides “bird friendly” certification for sustainably raised beef products. This voluntary program allows producers to charge a premium for their product, creating an additional incentive for coexistence between bird and flock.
We don’t need to pit the economy against the environment in a zero-sum game. There are solutions that can help all parties participate in the effort to save this bird and make a profit doing it. We hope FWS does the right thing for this species by granting endangered status, creating a mutually beneficial incidental take permit, and investing in ranchers and communities in the area. A commitment to cooperate in the event of conflict is key to ensuring the continued existence of this species on planet Earth.
Audubon Southwest is the National Audubon Society’s regional office for New Mexico and Arizona and is based in Santa Fe.