Free-market habitat plan floated in bid to avoid listing for prairie chicken

An environmental group is promoting a free-market plan aimed at keeping the lesser prairie chicken off the endangered species list.

The Environmental Defense Fund's habitat credit exchange would encourage landowners and energy companies to voluntarily conserve or enhance the bird's habitat in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

The EDF proposal comes days ahead of an expected Fish and Wildlife Service decision on whether to protect the grayish-brown grouse under the Endangered Species Act, a move some fear would pass on higher costs to oil and gas drillers, wind developers, ranchers and the government.

Many are hoping the agency will follow a path blazed by the dunes sagebrush lizard, which narrowly avoided an endangered listing in June after scores of landowners, oil and gas companies, and others in Texas and New Mexico agreed to voluntarily conserve the reptile's shinnery oak dune habitat (E&ENews PM, June 13).

In Texas, candidate conservation agreements with assurances, or CCAAs, were signed on 71 percent of the lizard's habitat. Under the agreements, landowners and developers who voluntarily conserve the species's habitat are given "assurances" that they will face no additional regulatory burden if the lizard is ever listed.


A keystone of the Texas conservation plan, EDF said, is a habitat credit exchange that allows landowners to earn money for implementing the conservation agreements.

"This approach opens doors to more landowners than would otherwise participate," said David Wolfe, director of conservation science at EDF. "They have a new commodity they can sell. They're generating a benefit for the species and selling it just like corn or cotton or beef."

The Texas exchange gives developers, such as oil drillers, a marketplace to purchase credits to compensate for habitat lost or destroyed as a result of wells, roads, transmission lines or other infrastructure. Participating landowners are able to sell credits they earn by, for example, pulling up mesquite plants that harm the lizard's dune habitat, removing farm roads and roadside drainage ditches, or curbing herbicide use.

A rangewide habitat credit exchange could negate the need to list the prairie chicken, just as it did for the lizard, EDF said.

"This exchange program can quickly engage stakeholders and implement conservation actions in a way that is consistent, measurable, transparent and fair," David Festa, EDF's West Coast vice president and head of the group's land, water and wildlife program, said in a Nov. 5 letter to FWS Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle. "We believe that such an exchange program is the most efficient and effective way of putting this species on a positive path relatively quickly and sustainably."

The prairie chicken, a colorful bird that sports a bright yellow eye band and bulbous "air sacs" in males, has been on the candidate list -- known as "purgatory" by some environmental groups -- for more than a decade. Federal scientists say grazing, tree encroachment, conversion of rangeland to crop and non-native forage, energy development, and increased disturbance are primary causes of the bird's decline.

FWS in 2008 found threats to the bird were intensifying due to increased wind development and conversion of private lands to crops.

Still, the agency faces political pressure to head off a listing.

A group of 21 lawmakers, most of them Republican, in July argued that voluntary conservation efforts over the past decade have totaled almost $50 million and covered 2.7 million acres, nullifying the need for federal protections (E&E Daily, July 18).

"I think they're going to work," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said of the agreements.

'Not a substitute for listing'

The EDF proposal reflects a broader shift toward the use of voluntary, state-led conservation agreements as FWS faces court-ordered deadlines to issue listing decisions on scores of other candidate species (Greenwire, Oct. 5).

EDF is helping establish a separate habitat credit exchange in Colorado to aid in the recovery of the sage grouse, which faces a listing determination in 2015. Participants include the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, Colorado Oil & Gas Association and multiple state agencies.

Habitat credit exchanges are different from conservation banks, in which land is typically bought to be permanently managed for the benefit of a species. The banks are helpful for species whose habitat is small, neatly defined and not expected to change much, Festa said.

In contrast, in a habitat credit exchange developers purchase conservation actions within a species's habitat rather than buying the land itself. The exchanges can enroll a larger number of landowners, and new lands or conservation actions can be used, for example, if persistent drought or climate change cause a species to move.

In the case of the prairie chicken, participating landowners could earn credits by promoting native grass restoration, fence marking, prescribed burning or woody species removal, EDF said.

If FWS adopts the plan, it would need to be implemented fast. The agency is expected to propose listing the bird as soon as tomorrow. If it does, the law requires it to finalize or withdraw the rule within a year, with the possibility of a six-month extension.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Festa said, "but we don't know if we have enough time."

The agency did not reply to a request for comment. EDF said it doesn't expect a response to its letter until, and if, a listing is proposed.

The proposal is not without its critics -- namely the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, which argued that past habitat credit exchanges in Texas lacked transparency and fell short of the ironclad protections offered under ESA.

The groups last year struck a massive legal settlement with FWS requiring it to issue listing decisions for roughly 250 candidate species, including the lesser prairie chicken and sage grouse, which roams across nearly a dozen Western states.

Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth, said that the prairie chicken has already been reduced to less than 10 percent of its historical range and that any successful habitat credit exchange would need to create more habitat than is lost to development.

In addition, a previous habitat exchange for sage grouse would have allowed participants to develop crucial nesting habitat in exchange for conserving lower-value lands the sage grouse might not even use, Salvo said.

"Habitat exchange credit programs are not a substitute for listing imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, which offers myriad other protections to listed species," he said.

ESA protections require federal agencies to consult with FWS to ensure projects they approve or fund will not jeopardize a species' survival. Developers are also required to obtain permits in order to kill or disturb protected wildlife.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at CBD, said in some cases it's difficult for environmental groups to verify that protections on private lands are actually taking place.

"We went from strong, transparent protections on public lands to secret, supposed protection on private lands," he said, referring to a separate habitat credit exchange established to protect the golden-cheeked warbler in Texas, "which wasn't very favorable in my mind."

And some FWS biologists have questioned the wisdom of using federal funds to secure temporary habitat on private lands for the warbler when permanent easements are known to be more effective in protecting vulnerable species, according to emails obtained by the Washington Post (Greenwire, Feb. 9, 2009).

'Bird ranchers'

But Festa and Wolfe said habitat credit exchanges, if implemented successfully, increase habitat for at-risk species at a lower cost than if they are listed.

In the case of the golden-cheeked warbler, a songbird that was added to the endangered species list in 1990, EDF helped establish a habitat credit exchange that allowed the Army to offset impacts from training exercises at Fort Hood by purchasing millions of dollars in conservation credits from landowners.

The system, which is administered by Texas A&M University, was designed to set aside 10 percent of the available habitat credits to ensure more lands are protected than are harmed or destroyed.

"The evidence we see from Fort Hood is you really can create this uplift," Festa said. "If we don't get that uplift, if this isn't good for the species, we're going to need to do something else. In that regard, we completely agree with folks who say the bottom line metric is, 'Will this be better for the species?'"

In addition, participating landowners have found cheaper ways to earn credits, he said. Ranchers were bidding credits for about $1,600 an acre when the system began a few years ago, but the price has since been cut in half, Festa said.

"They bid against each other and became better and better at being bird ranchers."

A habitat exchange for the prairie chicken, EDF said, would be "consistent, transparent, fair, measurable and, perhaps most importantly, provides certainty that investments in conservation actions now will count in the event that the chicken is listed."

The plan calls for the creation of a science committee to develop quantification tools for determining credits and debits.

"If we can pay these landowners to adopt these practices, we can put habitat-friendly farming, ranching, timberland operations on many thousands of acres," Festa said. "That's what you need to protect wide-ranging species like the lesser prairie chicken."

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