Guest column: Fish and Wildlife should rescind prairie chicken designation

The Fish and Wildlife Service seems confounded by the negative response to listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.

In designating the lesser prairie chicken as threatened, a step down from endangered but warranting specific protections, it had provided assurances that no additional federal regulations that might have an adverse impact on economic activities would be imposed.

Then why make the designation in the first place? In place is a perfectly good regional plan, which will provide 3.6 million acres to lesser prairie chicken conservation in New Mexico and four neighboring states.

These federal officials are confidently pointing to the benefits of additional government funding for conservation that come with the threatened species designation. Yet these same experts are in danger of being assailed again, by failing to grasp the growing concern over the economic costs of such conservation — a crisis of confidence that threatens to halt environmental regulation.

From Colorado to Texas, more and more people are expressing concern about the economic downside associated with regulating species like the lesser prairie chicken, including restrictions on agriculture, oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines.  Many people are understandably concerned about the loss of jobs and revenue.

Until recently, there was reason to assume that the five range states — Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas — would be able to manage the birds’ habitat in ways that would prove beneficial for multiple land use.  Contrary to some assumptions about the density of oil    and gas operations, the footprints are decreasing, not increasing. The number of oil-and-gas wells in close quarters is decreasing because of technological advancements that allow multiple wells to be drilled from a single pad. Oil and gas operations do not pose a threat to the lesser prairie chicken.Protecting this birds’ habitat must not overshadow another, bigger challenge: accelerating the production of low-carbon natural gas for use in electricity generation, transportation, and manufacturing.

Make no mistake; habitat conservation is wise and necessary.  The birds’ numbers have dropped dramatically — 84 percent in the past 15 years and 50 percent in the last year alone, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Experts say that much of the problem is due to the prolonged drought.

Conservation measures under the range-wide plan, if properly executed, should help the species.  Working to save the lesser prairie chicken is a project that industry leaders and federal and state wildlife officials in the region should be able to agree on. But the decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species is not the solution.

The Fish and Wildlife Service ought to rescind its designation so there is no risk of industries facing high costs from mitigation fees and potential legal liabilities beyond what they can economically afford.  The process could chart a path for industry and conservationists to work together to not only save wildlife habitats but address other environmental issues.

Jim Constantopoulos is a geology professor at Eastern New Mexico University. Contact him at: jim.constantopoulos@enmu.edu

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