FREEcology

The never-ending saga of the lesser prairie chicken

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that it was once again considering listing the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act. This is not the first time.

When the Service previously considered listing this species, the states where it’s found, industry, property owners, and some environmental groups developed a state-led, voluntary conservation program to address the threats to the species, without the need for a listing. This latest announcement is part of an ongoing effort of some environmental groups to undermine that program, not only in this instance but as a model for saving other species. Therefore, the fate of voluntary conservation programs is on the line.

There is one obvious reason why the potential listing of the lesser prairie chicken is significant to special interests, on both sides of the question. It could block energy development, including natural gas and solar, in the Permian Basin. Because of that threat, states, industry, and property owners responded to the initial whispers of a listing proposal by developing a voluntary conservation program to proactively recover the species and avoid a listing—and the ruinous regulatory burdens it would entail.

Contrary to its own policy, the Service decided to ignore the voluntary conservation program and list the species anyway. The program’s participants challenged the prior listing struck down for failing to give proper consideration to the program. And a federal court agreed with them, striking the listing down.

In the few years since the original proposed listing, the voluntary conservation program has proven to be very successful in protecting the species. In the first two years alone, more than $50 million were raised for conservation and nearly 70,000 acres of habitat protected. In that time, the species’ population nearly doubled, although that was only partly due to the conservation efforts. The region also coincidentally went through a period of unusually heavy rain, which also aided the species.

In 2015, unfortunately, rain levels reverted to the mean. Consequently, the population declined slightly, although it remains well above where it was before the voluntary conservation program was developed. Cherry-picking this data point, the same groups that originally proposed the species’ listing declared the program a failure and renewed their call for the species to be listed. [Ironically, these groups vehemently oppose any scrutiny of the Endangered Species Act along the same lines, despite its abysmal 2% recovery rate.]

The Service’s recent announcement accepts that invitation to once again consider the species’ status. This time, however, it has hopefully learned its lesson from the earlier litigation and will take the state-led voluntary conservation program seriously. The fate of programs like this one—which would include programs to protect the greater sage grouse, dunes sagebrush lizard, and perhaps many more down the road—depend on the Service respecting them as an alternative to regulation under the Endangered Species Act. From a libertarian environmentalist perspective, this is exactly backwards. These voluntary conservation programs should be encouraged and, where they fall short, reformed. They shouldn’t simply be dismissed in favor of command-and-control regulation. Given the statute’s failings, we owe it to both property owners and species to encourage these alternative conservation programs.