The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s removal of the lesser prairie chicken from its endangered species list on Tuesday is another lesson in how government intervention isn’t always needed to solve a problem.
The FWS in March 2014 listed the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened,” requiring additional protections from energy production, agriculture and other activity in states where the bird has its habitat: Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and New Mexico.
However, long before the “threatened” listing, five states, including Oklahoma, took the lead on the issue and worked together to voluntarily list 9 million acres of land in a plan to conserve the lesser prairie chicken. Through conservation agreements, oil and gas companies in those states – as well as farmers and ranchers – committed to develop these enrolled lands in ways to avoid and minimize impacts on the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat.
That range-wide plan was endorsed by the FWS at the time, but still the bird was classified as a threatened species. A federal court ruled in 2015 that the “threatened” designation was too strong, and this de-listing is the final step in fulfilling that court ruling.
Of course, it really wasn’t necessary to list the chicken as threatened because of the early conservation efforts of the oil and natural gas industry. The efforts on the ground showed that the industry has a much better plan to handle these types of issues than overregulation by the federal government. The plan put together through the conservation agreements has been working, and the bird has seen positive results in population increases and decreases through natural cycles.
While the Endangered Species Act itself hasn’t shown much success in recovering any species, the oil and gas industry actually has a good track record in this regard. In 2012, similar conservation agreements with the oil and gas industry and landowners prevented the dune sagebrush lizard from being listed as endangered, and the lizard remains off the list.
Even with the de-listing, the FWS doesn’t appear to be giving up on its zeal to list the lesser prairie chicken at some point, saying it will re-evaluate the chicken’s status and determine whether it needs protection. They will always be at the mercy of anti-energy activist groups who will constantly use lawsuits and other means to thwart development of natural resources.
Still, this latest development is a win for the industry and a good example of how coordination between the oil and natural gas industry and states can more effectively protect the environment than the federal government has proven it can do.
Cindy Allen joins the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association after several years as an oil and gas communications specialist and editor and publisher of community newspapers in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas.