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Stakeholders In At-Risk Species Conservation Discuss What's Best For The Birds


Endangered species conservation is a complex realm with several stakeholders and a suite of approaches. Recently, a few of those parties came together for a spirited conversation about best practices for the lesser prairie chicken and greater sage-grouse, two high profile cases that have deep ramifications for species conservation.
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16 October 2015 | To say it's complicated to conserve a species threatened with extinction is an understatement. It involves millions of dollars, strategies, plans and engagement with multiple stakeholders. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) annual expenditure report, conserving the Indiana bat cost over $14 million in 2013. The Florida panther cost over $2 million. And when those species require millions of acres to thrive, cross over many US state lines and often encumber energy and commercial development, the complexity increases several times over.

This is the situation the many parties involved with greater sage-grouse and lesser prairie chicken conservation are facing. And, perhaps as expected, the different parties have assorted opinions on the best way to conserve these species.

A Difference in Opinion

For Wayne Walker, a conservation banker who has successfully developed landscape-level lesser prairie chicken banks, a market approach to conservation, where companies follow the same rigorous conservation standards and compete for buyers for their mitigation credits, is best. This approach is grounded in conservation banking, a method the FWS approves of.

Sean Kyle, the Industry Services Director at Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), says a market approach isn't necessary to deliver solid conservation and restore the bird's dwindling habitat. WAFWA is a consortium of state wildlife agencies and Kyle argues the range-wide plan it developed for prairie chicken conservation is not only successful in its conservation efforts but also in its ability to engage the landowners, often reluctant to participate. This is key particularly for the prairie chicken as 90% of its habitat is on private land.

Speaking of reluctant landowners, environmental NGO the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) continues to advocate for its habitat exchange: the market mechanism that connects those buying conservation offsets with the ranchers and farmers providing it. Eric Holst, an Associate Vice President in EDF's Working Lands Program, says the exchanges deliver high quality conservation while also providing a revenue stream for landowners, therefore, incentivizing their participation.

"These species depend on private and public working lands at some point in their life cycle and our view is that you can force good behavior or you can incentivize good behavior. We choose the latter," Holst says.

Then there's the FWS, the always present ultimate decision-making regulatory force deciding which approaches are valid. The recent decision not to list the greater sage-grouse, for instance, due to collaborative and voluntary conservation sends huge signals to stakeholders that the FWS is moving toward a landscape level and highly collaborative version of conservation.

"In the last decade, the FWS has attempted a paradigm shift to work with partners, actively, to conserve a species versus listing. We're more into developing programs that avoid a listing," says Michael Thabault, the Assistant Regional Director for Ecological Services at FWS.

These four groups recently had the opportunity to express their views to the media during the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference under a "weather, water and energy" theme. This year, it took place in Norman, Oklahoma, an ideal backdrop for a discussion about these at-risk species as Oklahoma is prime prairie chicken country and developing the birds' habitat for wind power and other forms of development is a common topic.

The Numbers

Perhaps it's surprising that these unassuming, ground-nesting birds, which have been on the landscape for hundreds of years, are the face of a paradigm shift in US conservation.

While these birds occupy different regions, they both require large swaths of contiguous lands to thrive and face similar threats to their habitat. Encroaching commercial and energy development is ruining and fragmenting their ecosystems while natural calamities like wildfire, drought and invasive species factor in as well.

The greater sage-grouse experienced a 30% drop in population since the 1980s, according to the Department of Interior, and a 90% drop since the 19th century. The FWS estimates the current population is between 200,000 and 500,000 spread out over an 11 state range. Lesser prairie chicken numbers dropped  by a little over half from 2012 to 2013, according to Western Ecosystems Technology, an environmental consultancy. NGO Birdlife International says the species experienced a nearly 100% decline in population, across its 5 state range, in the last 40 years.

The prairie chicken was listed in March of 2014 but a federal court in Texas last month, citing voluntary action, removed the bird from the list leaving the situation in a limbo of sorts. The FWS filed a motion to leave the ESA protections in place while it addresses the court's issues. We're waiting on a decision, says Thabault.

Progress or Luck?

This year, the prairie chicken population rose 25%. It's good news that WAFWA is crediting, at least in part, to the success of its Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Plan. The region also experienced plentiful rain in a region prone to drought, which is a big factor in determining if the birds breed.

"You can't separate rain and conservation," says Kyle. "The WAFWA conservation measures resulted in companies changing their development practices, which preserved more habitat."

Walker attributes the increase in number far more to the "unbelievable rains," he says, than to WAFWA's efforts. "You can't look at the last couple years and say the range-wide plan had a statistically meaningful impact," Walker says.

Race to the Bottom?

The FWS requires conservation banks operate under rigorous standards that create the market price for mitigation that's in compliance with its regulations. And the range-wide plan is also required to meet these same standards for its permanent conservation-25% of the plan.

But Walker claims the Service allowed the association to pursue lands that don't meet these standards which creates a market price distortion, allowing the range-wide plan to secure mitigation at an artificially lower price, he says.

"If you have standards less than banking standards, the conservation outcome will be predictably bad and a sad race to the bottom will happen," he says.

Walker considers the range-wide plan to be a monopoly where the entity that is responsible for saving the species also sets the rules. "These are inherent conflicts of interests," says Walker. "It's controlling the rules, market prices and the standards."

He cites an earlier FWS decision as an example of this conflict. The WAFWA plan has a waiver period until March 30, 2015, for certain oil and gas participants, giving these parties more time to offset adverse impacts, which they planned to do by paying WAFWA mitigation fees. These participants had initially committed to a higher level of conservation later on in exchange for the extra time. But when the deadline was looming, the FWS extended it 90 days giving the states more time for compliance.

This extension eliminated any demand to purchase our credits, Walker says, speaking about the 30,000 prairie chicken bank credits the FWS had recently approved.

Or Doing Just Fine?

Needless to say, Kyle doesn’t see it this way saying WAFWA never altered its plan since its release and approval save only to increase their efforts regarding permanent conservation. Before the March deadline, the FWS said the oil and gas deadline had always been ambiguous.

Moreover, Kyle explained WAFWA's intent was never to create a market but to seek out the best approach to conserve the prairie chicken. "Wayne (Walker) wants us to buy credits from him, and we can get it cheaper directly from the landowner than through a conservation bank," Kyle says.

The range-wide plan operates under a ratio that delivers a net benefit for the species. And its population did increase though it's open to interpretation which of the aforementioned variables-rain or conservation-is most responsible.

WAFA was also looking for a method that engaged rather than alienated the landowners. "The Great Plains hadn't had an endangered species issue. The range-wide plan is the state FWS' agencies seeing the potential train-wreck coming and trying to develop a plan that engages landowners and industries to participate," says Kyle.

According to WAFWA, 181 companies enrolled and it collected $42 million in enrollment and unavoidable impact fees. The potential of these companies' mitigation needs amounts to about 11 million acres. And so far, 10 10-year contracts with landowners, comprising 96,000 acres, are finalized, Kyle says.

In June of this year, WAFWA secured a little over 1,000 acres of permanent habitat through a conservation easement and management plan.

The ESA as Motivator or Regulator?

At any rate, this conflict isn't new and shows no signs of lessening. The panelists did, however, agree on the ESA's significance in motivating parties to proactively conserve.

Walker, most in favor of regulation because of its ability to drive market demand, focused more on valuing ecosystem services on broader terms.

"We have to find a way to be more proactive and find the value in every acre, not just a precious acre that harbors a chicken or a sage-grouse," he says. An ESA listing is not a success, they agreed. It means the species is in such a state of decline that it will require millions to conserve while causing massive disruptions to those sharing the landscape.

"Early action is best," Host says.

Kelli Barrett is a freelance writer and editorial assistant at Ecosystem Marketplace. She can be reached at kbarrett@ecosystemmarketplace.com.

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