The Hays Daily News has taken on the critical topic of the declining habitat of the Lesser Prairie Chicken in its piece by Juno Ogle: “Gove County is Center of State Efforts to Launch Birding Tourism.” It’s a great story on the Endangered Species Act status of the LPC and why so many nature lovers want to see the mating ritual on the lek this month.

Ecotourism is one way to preserve nature and habitat but birder tourism will not scale-up to save this amazing bird species or most other threatened species in the Southern Plains. It will take a new landscape scale effort now being considered by federal and state officials, which involves ranching and agriculture landowner groups, NGO’s and private landowners to create the proper conditions to save the lesser prairie chicken from extinction.

 At last count by the five-state wildlife agency consortium which monitors progress on key LPC Conservation Goals, the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies “WAFWA,” there are about 33,000 remaining lesser prairie chickens in the Southern Plains.

Whether the populations move up or down a few thousand birds at next count, it might be too late to achieve meaningful and sustained gains in LPC conservation. Only market forces and fair pricing now for the benefit of private landowners will create the right results.

 We must consider the landowner’s opinion, like rancher Stacy Hoeme quoted in your story, and many others in the five-state habitat range. These prairie state consortia or federal agencies like WAFWA and USFWS should pay a fair market price for durable conservation measures on private land located in the right places that may well save the species from extinction. Sustainable land practices and conservation are important measures that some private landowners have already taken to support LPC habitat. If conserving threatened wildlife cannot be profitable, at a market rate, then ranchers will likely resort to more intensive grazing on their ranch to make a living. This equation is exacerbated during drought conditions.

Time is of the essence. This summer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is expected to announce the status of the LPC under ESA. The lesser prairie chicken was listed once before and things have not improved since the last listing decision.

Currently, the private landowners have a lose-lose proposition: potentially lose private property rights if ESA protections kick in or face a worn out value proposition of a “take it or leave payment” defined by the Feds or the State consortium that does not recognize the scarce nature of the limited remaining LPC habitat that very few landowners still manage.

Private landowners are part of the solution because they can provide strategic and durable conservation to establish Conservation Strongholds that the LPC desperately needs and is the No. 1 conservation objective of the five-state consortium plan. There is a 40 million acre range of birds across the five western states where they once flourished. Currently, the WAFWA plan, or other conventional Federal Programs, do not pay a fair or realistic price to secure the strategic locations necessary to save the LPC.

Private land owners, like Stacy and others, manage a great piece of productive rangeland as part of their cattle operations that also supports some of the last remaining LPC’s. Curiously, Rancher Hoeme is presently not even part of the conversation with the WAFWA program nor are other landowners who are conservation stewards for the last remaining populations of this bird.

The WAFWA consortium and Federal Agencies should have these private landowners and their conservation partners at the table so we can all avoid the LPC decline and the increasing likelihood of it being potentially re-listed under the ESA.

 We urge Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (WAWFA) and the USFWS to meet with our private landowner partners as soon as possible so that we can implement an effective and sustainable solution to the lesser prairie challenge and the ecosystems it inhabits.

Wayne Walker

Common Ground Capital

Oklahoma City