Lesser Prairie-Chicken conservation program bungled, group says

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has failed to properly manage the conservation program for the highly imperiled Lesser Prairie-Chicken, wasting funds on an unneeded building in Idaho and wrongfully paying staff salaries out of the program’s endowment, according to a third-party audit of WAFWA’s efforts.

WAFWA acknowledges the audit of the program, administered on behalf of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, but has yet to make the document public.

A WAFWA rebuttal to the audit, obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity, summarizes its main conclusions. For example, the audit found that WAFWA’s purchase of a building in Boise, Idaho, using administrative funds was “not appropriate.”

Further, the rebuttal cites audit statements that WAFWA has “an organizational culture that prevents an effective management of the Program,” “does not have a well-articulated conservation strategy,” and that WAFWA’s conservation program “does not provide a net gain in conservation objectives.”

“The audit’s conclusions make clear WAFWA grossly mismanaged efforts to save the Lesser Prairie-Chicken from extinction,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the center. “Given these revelations, there’s no question these magnificent dancing birds need the Endangered Species Act’s protections to have any hope of survival.”

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is severely threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by oil and gas development, cropland conversion, livestock grazing, and roads and power lines. Scientists estimate there were once more than 3 million of these birds, but in recent years fewer than 40,000 have been surveyed — a 99% decline.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken has been under consideration for Endangered Species Act protections for more than 20 years and was listed as a threatened species from 2014 to 2016.

Despite the fact that oil and gas drilling done in accordance with WAFWA’s conservation plan was exempt from the Act, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and several counties went to court and got a Midland, Texas, judge to invalidate protections for the prairie-chicken in 2016.

Following a petition and litigation from the Center and allies, the prairie-chicken will get a new decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding its protection in May 2021.

WAFWA has been implementing the conservation plan for the prairie-chicken since 2013. It last put out a progress report at the end of 2018, showing a decline in overall participation by land owners enrolling in the conservation easement program. Just over 150,000 acres were set aside for temporary conservation, but only about 37,000 acres were permanently protected.

“The bungling of this voluntary conservation effort really highlights why the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and many other species need the proven protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Greenwald. “A proper regulatory framework would ensure prairie-chicken conservation is prioritized, and it wouldn’t preclude states from playing an important role in helping these birds survive.”

Last year the Center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Fish and Wildlife Service and public-records act requests to all the states in the prairie-chicken’s range to obtain the audit. The request has not been met.

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

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