As The Texas Tribune's Kiah Collier recently reported, environmental groups have filed lawsuits to place the dunes sagebrush lizard on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list.
This is unfortunate, yet wholly predictable. The ESA was written some 40 years ago to serve as an enforcement tool of last resort to stop species loss. Over the decades since, conservationists and land use planners have become better at building real engagement with public and private sector conservationists in an attempt to secure more habitat conservation. But a sense of foreboding remains when it comes to the long-term trajectory for animals such as the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie chicken (LPC).
With the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (WAFWA) LPC population counts expected to come out this month, we know any increase in the count from last year — 33,000 birds on Texas prairie and in neighboring states — will create great fanfare. The reality, however, is that the LPC population remains at dangerously low levels.
WAFWA’s stated goal is to double the current population by obtaining a ten-year average of 67,000 LPCs. But it will be decades before we have a chance to meet this goal, even if everything goes right.
The unique habitat that is home to the lesser prairie chicken is found in parts of five states in the southern Great Plains: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. These states are also among the best locations for multiple types of energy development, both conventional and renewable. These industries bring value to our economy, revenue to these states and energy to all Americans. Going forward, it is critical that WAFWA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do a better job of coordinating conservation efforts, with more accountability, transparency and strategic conservation investments. We must both conserve our wildlife and be allowed to continue to harness our natural resources in a responsible manner.
Virtually all of the remaining best-of-class LPC conservation acreage belongs to private landowners. Private mitigation companies, like my own and others, figured out decades ago that partnering with private landowners and investing private dollars in durable conservation would accomplish superior outcomes. These valuable properties would help rapidly achieve the stronghold goal of WAFWA’s program — 25,000 to 50,000 contiguous permanently protected acres (“strongholds”). But these private properties and landowner/private sector partnerships have been excluded from the WAFWA’s program. Getting these properties engaged prior to the impending listing decision is critical for the state of Texas to retain control of the LPC.
The LPC needs strongholds, now, to achieve the underlying habitat security needed to sustain landscapes in the southern plains and provide a long-term home for this species. Without it we are not going to meet the population goals for the bird or step away from the ESA brink.
As noted in Collier’s story, the dunes sagebrush lizard is an example of state leadership and accountability. The DSL is also under state control but, through changes under the jurisdiction of the Texas comptroller’s office, is showing promise.
The federal government and the states must work together in tandem with industry and private landowners to save these wonderful creatures residing in Texas’ dwindling landscapes. Let’s start that conversation now on the lesser prairie chicken to ensure that we are getting the best possible conservation results on the ground and embrace program changes that are also needed in the existing WAFWA effort.