Texans are known for their love of animals, especially served up rare in a steakhouse. But how much love can you have for lesser prairie chickens? This question is no longer rhetorical, as landowners in Texas ponder how to comply with new legal restrictions aimed at protecting the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat, as My San Antonio Online reports. In exchange for implementing conversation measures, the federal government is offering legal protections to landowners. Attorneys in San Antonio, the Hill Country and West Texas who represent landowners, from small farming and ranching families to energy corporations, say that the deal looks legit, so far.
The prairie grouse was once abundant, but its numbers have dropped from 45,000 in December of 2012 to even fewer, with 18,000 at the last count. Drought and loss of habitat are cited as the main causes for decline. The grayish brown bird is medium-sized and makes its nests in long prairie grasses in Spring and early Summer across 23 identified counties in Texas.
If it works, these legal protections could serve as a model for other areas where industry and landowners could be impacted by a threatened or endangered animal. This trade-off is brand new, and has never been tried before, but without it, landowners and industry would no longer be able to operate in the bird’s habitat if the prairie grouse is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Within the scope of this new deal, those who take steps to conserve and protect the habitat will receive a letter guaranteeing that they will not be fined or prosecuted if lesser prairie chickens are found dead on their property. So far, so good, but attorneys in San Antonio and across the Texas bird’s habitat have yet to see the language of such a letter.
And the future of this deal is still in the works, too, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not expected to announce until March 30 whether the bird will be listed as a federally protected species. In the meantime, this leaves Texans scrambling to determine whether, how and how much of the bird’s habitat they will be able to preserve on their land. One Hereford rancher notes half his family’s land is already set aside for conservation, with the other half designated as cattle grazing land. While his family has been ranching in the Texas panhandle since the 1920s, he worries that the new federal prairie grouse deal will render his ranch useless and deprive him of grazing lands.
Lawyers in the panhandle, attorneys in San Antonio and legal experts in Texas agree that the rancher’s concern is valid. While figures in the oil and gas industry such as the Permian Basin Petroleum Association have the ability to designate millions acres of toward conservation, landowners of smaller operations will find the cost of maintaining the protected habitat burdensome, an aspect of the agreement which has come under scrutiny by lawyers in Texas and San Antonio attorneys alike. Meanwhile, Texans play the waiting game for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service and the wildlife association to issue outlines of practices and agreements in the coming weeks.