Threatened or not?

Co-ops play an active role in preserving the lesser prairie-chicken.

Threatened or not?

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Laura Araujo The sun is seen from miles away as it rises above the horizon on the grass-covered prairie. It’s a cool spring morning, the humidity of a summer day not yet present in the air.  In the distance, gobbling and cackling can be heard as the lesser prairie-chicken performs his mating dance. But even in the quiet early morning hours on the southern Great Plains, the bird’s call has become increasingly difficult to hear.  

The brown and white grouse, once found in abundance in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, makes its home in tall grasses that protect it from predators, such as the hawk. In recent years, lack of rain, fragmentation of the prairie-chicken’s natural habitat, overgrazing of cattle and encroachment of invasive species into the grasslands have challenged the bird’s ability to thrive. 

In the mid-1990s, concern for the bird’s wellbeing led to a petition for it to be listed under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Endangered Species Act. The bird was monitored for several years, but was not a priority candidate for listing. In 2011, however, several environmental groups filed suit against the FWS. This propelled the listing decision forward. 

Recognizing the potential impacts a listing might have, Oklahoma began working on a plan in 2011 to avert a listing, or at least a listing of “endangered,” which means the species is in danger of extinction and therefore receives maximum protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

In early 2012, Oklahoma presented its plan to the U.S. FWS. The FWS responded positively, but said the plan needed to be expanded to encompass the bird’s entire five-state habitat. This led to the formation of a range-wide conservation plan. 

“This plan is a hallmark. It’s the first time FWS has allowed the states to be in control of the management,” Tyler Powell, the deputy secretary of environment for the state of Oklahoma says. “The Endangered Species Act has a good track record of making sure species don’t go extinct, but it doesn’t have a good record of getting them off the list. This plan will enable on-ground conservation for the benefit of the species.”

According to Powell, the area covered by the conservation plan encompasses 11 million acres of the bird’s 40-million-acre habitat. Most of the land is privately owned. More than 180 participants, including oil and gas companies, electric utilities, wind energy companies, road builders and landowners, have voluntarily participated in the plan, which provides them certain exemptions if the bird is listed as “threatened.” A threatened listing means the species is likely to become endangered in the future.  

“If we had a listing, even as threatened, any project in lesser prairie-chicken territory would require a permit from FWS,” Powell explains.

For utility providers like Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC), a generation and transmission cooperative based in Anadarko, Okla., the additional permits required by a listing could significantly delay normal co-op activities. During certain times in the mating season co-ops might not be allowed enter the bird’s territory, even to repair power lines. 

WFEC’s enrollment in the conservation plan means the co-op’s entire system, at the time the plan was filed, is exempt from the federal regulations that result from a listing. Any new projects must go through a simple mitigation process that takes a couple days. As part of the plan, a tool determines how much participants will have to pay for new projects. The cost depends, in part, on its impact on the bird’s territory. 

Fees for enrolling in the conservation plan, as well as those paid for new projects, are invested into protecting lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Farmers and ranchers who enroll their land in the plan can choose to carry out various activities to help the birds: opening fencing, planting native grasses, controlling invasive species, reducing cattle herd sizes and more. They receive incentive payments for their efforts. More than $47.5 million has been committed to date.

In March 2014, the U.S. FWS issued its ruling on the lesser prairie-chicken, listing the bird as threatened. However, in September 2015 a U.S. district court in Texas vacated the listing decision, saying it did not adequately take into account all of the data submitted to the FWS. 

Chris Meyers, CEO of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, says participation in the range-wide conservation plan is preferable to meeting the requirements of a federal listing.

“We believe the plan needs more time to work. In the long run, a local solution will cost less than a listing,” Meyers says. “Co-ops, other utilities and oil and gas companies have invested a lot of money in this plan which creates, preserves and improves habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken. We’re taking it seriously and we’re funding the plan.” Powell notes the FWS has the right to appeal the Texas court’s decision, but he says the ruling has not impacted the range-wide conservation plan.

“We developed the plan to work with or without listing,” he says. “No one has dropped out of the range-wide plan. They want the certainty that they already have something in place.”

Fortunately, the recent rains have helped to improve the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat. The 2015 population experienced a 25 percent increase over the previous year. An estimated 30,000 birds are currently living in the five-state habitat. Continued population growth is expected in 2016.

Whether the bird ultimately ends up being listed as threatened or not, the good news is the citizens and industries that cohabitate with the lesser prairie-chicken have made great strides in protecting the species. 

“We have an interest in the land and we want to do what’s right with it. That’s the spirit of an Oklahoman,” Powell says. 

It’s this kind of collaboration that’s needed to ensure future generations will be able to enjoy the familiar springtime call of the lesser prairie-chicken, a song that has been heard for more than a century on Oklahoma’s prairies. OKL Article End

Laura Araujo