It’s been 40 years since a near-unanimous Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.
The law’s lofty purpose — “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved” — has not yet been achieved, but the California condor, grizzly bear, whooping crane and bald eagle have all been saved from extinction thanks to the ESA.
Numerous rare species still await the ESA’s protection, including some in Texas.
Since 1973, the population of a rare bird called the lesser prairie chicken has plummeted from 200,000 to a mere 18,000 birds. From 2012 to 2013, the population dropped 50 percent, likely due to the ongoing drought, energy development and conversion of grassland into cornfields.
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Threats continue. The National Weather Service is predicting continuing drought conditions through spring, and the current U.S. energy boom means new oil and gas wells and wind turbines for the region.
The federal government was asked to protect the bird almost 20 years ago. After numerous delays, the government is currently operating under a court-ordered deadline to decide by March whether to do so.
We believe that the bird’s survival depends on strong federal protection, coupled with state-led conservation efforts in the five states where the birds are found.
In Texas, ESA protection for the lesser prairie chicken could affect as much as 7.8 million acres of its habitat and potential habitat in 21 Panhandle counties.
Over the last several years, wildlife agencies in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas have collaborated on a “range-wide” conservation plan that they hoped would preclude the need for federal action.
We applaud the states’ efforts and their willingness to provide resources for conservation. But the range-wide plan would not be a sufficient substitute for federal action and, by itself, would not stave off the lesser prairie chicken’s demise.
First, the actions proposed in the plan — measures such as incentive payments to landowners to encourage the planting of grasslands and funding to remove obstructions that the birds don’t like — are strategies that have been in place for years, yet they have not reversed the bird’s decline. It is unlikely that more of the same will yield a better result.
Second, the range-wide plan focuses mainly on 5-10 year commitments from landowners to manage existing habitat, rather than conservation easements that would enhance and permanently protect grasslands.
Contracts with landowners will “move across the landscape,” according to the plan. Unfortunately, lesser prairie chickens do not migrate, and they tend to return to the same area every spring to mate.
Thus, it seems unlikely that the plan can achieve its stated goal of a 400 percent increase in the bird’s still-dwindling population by experimenting with short-term contracts that protect a shrinking acreage of available habitat.
To be successful, a conservation plan must comprehensively address the threats to the species and yield an overall benefit. For the prairie chicken, which suffers when its habitat is fragmented by roads, fences, windmills and drilling equipment, harm in one place should be offset by beneficial activities that more than make up for that damage.
The most important areas should be permanently protected to ensure that the birds have adequate space. Across the country, dozens of existing conservation plans and banks for other rare species offer models for how the states’ range-wide plan could achieve these outcomes.
Under the federal ESA’s framework, states would retain enormous flexibility to craft a conservation approach that reflects the states’ and the landowners’ priorities.
But the ESA requires that conservation plans conform to minimum standards for monitoring and funding and that they mitigate for impacts to the “maximum extent practicable.”
Without a rigorous, comprehensive approach, the lesser prairie chicken will continue to lose ground.
Melinda Taylor teaches environmental law and directs the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law at the University of Texas School of Law. Timothy Male is a scientist with almost 15 years of experience working on endangered species and is the former vice president of policy at Defenders of Wildlife.