OPINION

Kansas ranchers say government needs to get out of the way and let them save the Lesser Prairie Chicken

By Mark Gardiner and Stacy Hoeme
Special to The Capital-Journal
Government bureaucracy won't be the savior of the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

As ranchers from Kansas, we are here to tell you that the proposed listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken as "threatened" spells trouble for our property rights.

It complicates or eliminates the chance to use our pastures and fields for almost everything — from ranching to farming to oil extraction, even renewable energy. It seems the only choice we will be left with is leaving the Lesser Prairie Chicken to fend for itself.

The problem is that, to date, government doesn’t pay well enough for our ranches to stay in conservation.

Last time the Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed, our state governments had a “solution” that was billed as a way for us to keep ranching, save the Lesser Prairie Chicken and even make some money.

Well, folks, out here in the High Plains we know government bureaucracy and failed government programs when we see them. Such was the case with the Western Alliance of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Lesser Prairie Chicken conservation and easement program.

WAFWA failed to deliver on-the-ground conservation and wasted $40M dollars of precious industry money along the way. We won’t belabor the point, but we wouldn’t be writing this if WAFWA’s program was successful. Because now the Lesser Prairie Chicken is proposed for relisting.

It’s now clear the Lesser Prairie Chicken needs real solutions, and we ranchers need real solutions, too.

The Endangered Species Act now proposes that the Lesser Prairie Chicken be listed as Endangered in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas, where there are fewer than 6,000, and Threatened in Kansas, where there are fewer than 20,000.

Truth be told, these levels are really near to extinction.

The Hoeme Family HRC ranch in Gove County, Kansas, has set aside 9,000 acres on the prairie for native habitat that is world-renowned as Lesser Prairie Chicken mating grounds. This lek has the most dense population of birds per acre anywhere.

The Gardiner family Angus Ranch in Ashland has more than 20,000 acres of land ready for these same market-based conservation easements.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken needs tens of thousands of acres of contiguous habitat in the right places across the High Plains that is permanently protected from development. The Lesser Prairie Chicken has been losing habitat for too many years. We need to protect the best of what is left today and start restoring adjacent lands to expand their habitat soon after.

The answer now, with the new ESA listing decision this week, is to let private markets provide industry with effective offsets that give them ESA protection while rewarding ranchers who harbor the last populations of this bird due to their good stewardship so they can continue making a living.

To us, it’s clear that the only solution for the Lesser Prairie Chicken, an invaluable native species of the Great Plains, is to let private conservation markets run the Lesser Prairie Chicken’s recovery program. We need conservation that lasts. We need it now.

Stop moving the goal posts for the bureaucracy and let us actually save the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

Mark Gardiner, Ashland, and Stacy Hoeme, Gove County, are Kansas ranchers.