The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put its stamp of approval on a plan that Texas and four other states have worked on for years to protect the lesser prairie chicken, a rare bird whose future has been threatened by economic development — especially oil and gas drilling — in West Texas and the Panhandle.
Energy companies and agricultural interests have long feared that if the federal agency decides to list the bird as "threatened," their activities would be limited on the millions of acres across the American West on which the prairie chicken roams. But now that the federal government has officially endorsed a conservation plan, known as the Range Wide Plan, many hope any effects will be minimal and easy to manage.
Under the plan, anyone whose activities might harm the prairie chicken's grassland habitat — namely oil and gas drillers, utilities or pipeline companies — could pay other landowners to conserve the habitat they own, thereby "offsetting" negative impacts to the bird.
For example, an oil company could enroll 1,000 acres of land it plans to drill on for a fee of $50 an acre, plus other fees depending on the quality of the habitat. An administrative agency set up by Texas and the four other states in which the chicken roams would use that money to pay ranchers or other landowners to protect the prime prairie chicken habitat they own. The ranchers could use that money to either conserve or restore the bird's habitat.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and its sister agencies in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma hope the government's endorsement of their plan will prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from deciding to list the bird as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, which it still could do in March. But even if it does, the endorsement is valuable, because any landowner or energy company participating in the conservation plan would not be subject to additional federal enforcement.
"We can give that certainty," Dan Ashe, director of the agency, said in a conference call Wednesday.
While the news is sure to bring relief to the officials who worked on the plan, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and independent oil and gas associations like the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, not everyone is pleased. The Center for Biological Diversity, whose lawsuit forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move more quickly on deciding whether to list more than 100 species in Texas as endangered, expressed disappointment with the decision.
The Washington-based wildlife advocacy group blasted the plan for being a voluntary effort and said it does not do enough to permanently conserve land for the bird. (Landowners can sign up to get paid for conservation efforts in five- to 10-year increments, though some can also get longer contracts.)
"Voluntary measures by states are too little, too late and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction," said Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the organization. "These vanishing birds need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act without exemptions for activities that continue to destroy their habitat."
He noted that a recent study found that the bird's population had dropped by 50 percent in the past year, down to about 17,000 nationwide. The Range Wide Plan aims to increase that number to 67,000 in the next decade, which Lininger said is not aggressive enough.
State Comptroller Susan Combs has also sharply criticized the plan. Her office is in charge of a controversial, confidential effort, which was set up in part by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, to conserve the habitat of the dunes sagebrush lizard, which occupies the Permian Basin. Some of the same players who set up that effort, including lobbyists who have represented TXOGA members and former Texas Parks and Wildlife Chairwoman Katharine Armstrong, have been working on a separate proposal for the lesser prairie chicken in the event that there's an endangered species listing that would involve a "wildlife habitat exchange." In such a plan, energy companies would also effectively pay landowners to conserve habitat, but the system would be based on a free-market exchange, rather than a largely fixed-price plan.
"I'm glad to see that the states have their plan out, and the more options the better," said Steve Manning, an environmental consultant who is working on the alternative proposal with major oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron and with the Environmental Defense Fund. "We're obviously still working on ours with a very fast track."