A portly brown grouse with striped feathers and large golden brows might return to protected status in late May, as two companies aim to develop enough habitat to allow the lesser prairie chicken to thrive.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by May 26 whether to relist the bird under the Endangered Species Act to comply with a court order spurred by three conservation groups suing the agency in 2019.
“The lesser prairie chicken is endangered and should again be listed,” said Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “We have documented continued loss of … habitat, meaning that, if anything, the situation for the chicken is worse than when the Fish and Wildlife Service last attempted to list the bird.”
WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity are the other two plaintiffs in the complaint.
Lindsay Larris, WildEarth’s wildlife program director, said although the recent change to the greener Biden administration seems encouraging, Trump-era rules are still in place. Those rules require economic impacts on industries to be considered when listing species for protection, she said.
“So it’s not quite as rosy as we’d like it to be,” Larris said.
The lesser prairie chicken population has declined by 97 percent since 2 million of the birds roamed rangelands in the 1800s. They have dwindled to about 38,000 across five states because of climate change, industrial development and agriculture.
Their habitat is scattered across grasslands that include the oil-rich Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico.
An abrupt 50 percent drop in numbers in 2014 prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird as threatened that year. But two years later, a brief 25 percent surge in population led to a federal judge removing protections in response to a lawsuit by a petroleum company.
Around that time, the Western Alliance of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a multistate consortium, created voluntary programs to encourage industries, especially oil and gas, to preserve habitat. But environmentalists and other critics contend those programs have been ineffective since the lesser prairie chicken lost its protected status because businesses were no longer forced to comply.
A 2019 independent audit was critical of the consortium, saying it mismanaged finances and made flawed and ineffectual efforts to increase habitat for the birds.
Now, two companies have teamed up to develop large expanses of lesser prairie chicken habitat by establishing mitigation banks — similar to water or wetland banks. An operator can buy a credit from the companies to preserve 2 acres of lesser prairie chicken habitat at a designated site to offset each acre it displaces.
One company is Common Ground Capital, based in Oklahoma City, and the other is Austin, Texas-based Riverbank.
Wayne Walker, who owns Common Ground, said the consortium’s voluntary programs were well intentioned but destined to fail because businesses, when given the choice, will do no more than required.
“It’s a Band-Aid approach,” Walker said. “Those industries are going to do what’s in their best interest.”
His partner, Adam Riggsbee, who owns Riverbank, said the consortium runs a patchwork of programs in different states that can be confusing.
“It needs a coordinated effort,” Riggsbee said.
Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, contends the voluntary programs have worked and that relisting the chicken would be onerous and counterproductive.
“Operators across New Mexico have invested in significant resources and enrolled in voluntary conservation agreements in addition to avoiding habitat disruption to protect the species,” McEntyre wrote in an email.
Listing the bird again would undermine progress and would impede oil and gas production, which is critical to the state’s budget, he added.
Walker said he believes the lesser prairie chicken will go back on the protected list, which will require many entities to work together.
He said the mitigation banks will help accomplish that.
So far, they’ve established two “strongholds” for the lesser prairie chicken, Walker said, adding the land cost a seven-figure amount.
The tracts were required to have a thriving population of lesser prairie chickens that can multiply undisturbed, he said.
One is 10,000 acres near Milnesand, an Eastern New Mexico town south of Portales. The other is 3,000 acres in Tomahawk, Texas.
They’ve sold credits for 3,000 acres in the Lost Draw Conservation Bank near Milnesand and 1,500 acres in Tomahawk.
Larris said she was curious how they would keep the prairie chickens from wandering off. She also wondered what happens to the birds whose habitats are destroyed by commercial activities.
Riggsbee said the displaced birds just move on somewhere else. They can’t be relocated like desert tortoises.
The aim is to keep expanding the size of the strongholds so the prairie chickens that occupy them can proliferate, Riggsbee said. That might involve acquiring and restoring adjacent lands, he said.
They’d like to get New Mexico’s stronghold to 25,000 acres, he added.
Bird said mitigation banks like these can be effective as long as they grow in size to accommodate a swelling population.
“Otherwise, we are still witnessing cumulative habitat loss that will further imperil the species,” he said.