Lesser prairie chickens are almost cooked. But in the West, sensible planning and healthy partnerships hold promise--if Americans would only abandon their current policy of wind, oil, and gas development anywhere, at any cost.
Here, as everywhere, the task of beating back invasive plants is impossible without herbicides. But herbicide use is always tricky business, especially in West Texas. This is farm and ranch country, so the politically active chemophobes, who hate all poisons without bothering to learn about any and who impede their use elsewhere, aren't much of a problem. The problem is cotton. To effectively poison mesquite and other trees, soil temperatures have to be above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but that's when cotton is growing and the herbicide, delivered by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft, can drift on the wind and kill it. So conditions have to be just right, and if you mess up even a little, you get the powerful ag community on your back.
As difficult as it is to maintain habitat, it can be even harder to make it. "You have to turn ag land back to rangeland," said Kyle. "We do that in a number of ways--with CRP, for example." CRP stands for the Conservation Reserve Program, in which farmers get federal compensation for taking land out of production and planting it with stabilizing ground cover.
When CRP got going in 1985, farmers planted mostly native grasses, but soon aggressive, easily established aliens like Old World bluestem and weeping lovegrass became available and at lower cost. Farmers asked the USDA's Farm Services Agency if they could plant aliens instead, and because the FSA was thinking about erosion control rather than wildlife, it said sure.
In Kansas, which sustains nearly half of the planet's lesser prairie chickens, the population has been increasing. The species is doing so well in the state, in fact, that it can be legally hunted. The Kansas success story is only part luck. While a huge amount of land was signed up for CRP because of the sandy, highly erodible soil, the state and the FSA administrator had the foresight to insist it be planted only to native cover. And it hasn't hurt that the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has had some inspired leadership, most recently in the person of Mike Hayden, a trained wildlife biologist and the state's former governor, who ran the agency for nine years, leaving office last January. "Our chickens were declining, too," he told me. "But when CRP came in, that decline reversed. Our CRP is a patchwork, which is great for chickens--a quarter-section here, half a section there, and all intermixed with corn, wheat, milo, native grasses, and intermittent sand-sage prairie. We thought their historic range was only southwestern Kansas, but now we're finding them far to the north. They've followed the CRP."
Heather Whitlaw, the Fish and Wildlife Service's southern plains coordinator, offered this: "Kansas has a relationship with NRCS unlike any other state on the Great Plains. They work in the same offices; their boots are on the ground together. They have people who are paid half time by NRCS and half time by Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. It's a great partnership. Everyone's talking and communicating."
While the other states were less provident, Kyle and Lucia are finding that natives are showing up on Texas CRP land. They're not sure if there were some indigenous seeds in the early alien plantings or if the natives are just invading the invasives. But on a lot of CRP land there, lesser prairie chickens are moving back in.
But because CRP contracts run for only 10 or 15 years before they have to be renewed, the program can't offer permanent protection. With prices for crops like cotton, milo, corn, and wheat approaching all-time highs, land is being un-enrolled and planted. Further destroying incentives to keep land in CRP are new drought-resistant strains of crops that can grow where cotton and sorghum could never grow before. And on top of this is the legislated demand for corn ethanol--which requires more energy in the form of fossil fuel to create than it delivers (see "Drunk on Ethanol," Audubon, July-August 2004).
Still, managers are coming up with innovative ways to keep lesser prairie chickens on private land. Perhaps the most valuable tool is the Endangered Species Act--not for enforcement, because the species isn't listed, but as an incentive for habitat maintenance and restoration. The act had been a failure on private land, encouraging elimination rather than protection of wildlife until President Clinton's Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, started rewarding instead of punishing landowners who hosted listed species. One of the ways he did this was with what are called Safe Harbor Agreements, which granted landowners who agreed to preserve and maintain habitat guarantees that they wouldn't be prosecuted should future legal land use result in "take."
Modeled after Safe Harbor is a new program for candidate species called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA). Landowners who agree to do habitat work--which costs them little and in many cases benefits their operations by restoring grass and creating water sources--are guaranteed that, should the species be listed, they won't have to implement measures in excess of those specified in the CCAA and they won't be prosecuted for the take permitted under the CCAA agreement.
"In the last year and a half we've been able to sign up 115,000 acres in CCAAs," said Kyle. "And we've got another four or five ranches on line. CCAAs are a much better deal for landowners than Safe Harbor Agreements." He explained that participants get to keep working with Parks, Wildlife and Tourism staffers they've known for years, while nonparticipants get handed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel from away whom they may never have met and who know relatively little about their land. "We feel Parks and Wildlife can do a much better job at recovery than the feds," Kyle added.