As wildlife biologists, hunters, and conservationists, we watched closely as the fate of the lesser prairie-chicken unfolded on March 27 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the medium-sized game bird as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
The fact that a once widely distributed and extensively hunted game bird would be considered for an ESA listing is unfortunate, and the USFWS decision disappointed many. But the lesser prairie-chicken can be restored and eventually de-listed if responsible conservation practices are followed. We also can avert the need to list as threatened or endangered another once-abundant game bird, the greater sage grouse, if conservation practices are embraced.
When conservation of wildlife spawned in the late 1800s, market hunting had nearly extirpated many species of fish and wildlife. Today, multiple factors including drought, habitat loss, and human development have impacted native habitats of the lesser prairie-chicken. The listing decision came with special rules offering protection for landowners and industries participating in programs designed to improve habitat conditions and increase populations. But now, confusion, frustration, misinformation and anger have surfaced among members of the public, politicians, industry, local governments, wildlife managers and landowners – along with skepticism regarding the efficacy of these and other conservation programs.
Some contend that industry and landowners will be less inclined to participate in similar programs for other species – including the greater sage grouse, itself a candidate for ESA listing – following the lesser prairie-chicken decision. In sum: Why bother if it will be listed anyway? State wildlife agencies managing the two game birds are spending millions annually to help conserve these species. Agency officials, wildlife commissions and sportsmen might ask, "Why spend money on these birds if their listing is a foregone conclusion?"
The lesser prairie-chicken’s fate stemmed from two factors: time and numbers. Efforts by the five states harboring the species to formulate a conservation strategy came during severe drought and were too late to reverse the trends before a listing decision needed to be made. But the foundation for conservation is in place. Now we just need continued will and commitment from all participants – landowners, industries, the states, local governments and politicians – to enable the bird’s recovery.
There is time to conserve greater sage grouse populations before a listing decision is made. The bird’s fate will be determined by September 2015, and many conservation programs, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative, already are in place to help safeguard not only sage grouse populations, but also participating landowners should the bird be listed.
Unlike lesser prairie-chickens, more than half of the habitat for sage-grouse is managed by the federal government – namely the Bureau of Land Management, which will bear responsibility for management changes that must benefit sage-grouse across more than 50 million acres. Another positive factor is sheer numbers – far more sage grouse roam the West today than lesser prairie-chickens.
Private landowners, local governments and industry are critical players for conservation and restoration of both game birds.
Will the sage grouse go the way of the lesser prairie-chicken – or, worse yet, the passenger pigeon? Or will we persevere and thwart another listing by working together and committing to conservation and balanced development of our natural resources? Time will tell, but at least for now, time is on our side for sage grouse.
Ed Arnett is director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Terry Riley is director of conservation for the North American Grouse Partnership.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.