Can Conservation Banking Save New Mexico’s Smaller Prairie Chicken?

Mack Kizer recalls seeing smaller prairie chickens growing up on his family’s ranch in eastern New Mexico. He said his children and grandchildren have also seen the birds at the ranch since they were children and he hopes they can enjoy the presence of this unique animal long into the future.

As the bird population dwindles, Kizer’s family is among a group of landowners who have made arrangements that allow them to be paid for maintaining lesser prairie chicken habitat on their ranch.

The bird’s habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented. The birds, which live in eastern New Mexico and adjacent part of Texas, are now isolated from birds farther north in places like Oklahoma and Kansas.

This month, the southern population of the lesser prairie chicken is added to the United States’ list of animals considered to be endangered. The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced in November that the bird would be added to the list. Endangered species status becomes effective 60 days after a notice is posted in the Federal Register. The status will therefore take effect next week.

Related: Small prairie chicken in New Mexico receives endangered species protection

Making a living in rural eastern New Mexico isn’t always easy, and the drought has further complicated farming efforts.

Many of the residents are ranchers and farmers who, like the Kizers, have lived in the area for generations.

“They’re limited to a relatively small number of ranchers who have this habitat in the area, and they need to be rewarded for being good stewards,” said Wayne Walker, founder of Common Ground Capital.

Common Ground Capital has partnered with the Kizer family to help preserve the habitat on their ranch. Walker said the organization is working to preserve niches with good habitat for the smaller prairie chicken.

He said the agreements allow ranchers to support their families and buy equipment.

“We think it could be a game changer for ranchers,” he said, adding that Common Ground Capital pays the market price for the acres set aside for conservation.

The company does this through what it calls conservation banking, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service defines as “a market-based system for conserving species and their habitats.”

Essentially, landowners like the Kizers are entering into an agreement with an organization like Common Ground Capital as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Organizations like Common Ground Capital set up a foundation to fund the long-term operation of the property, which can include things like monitoring and managing the site. Funding for these agreements comes from selling loans to developers and corporations to offset their impact.

For example, a wind farm developer could buy credit to offset the impact of the turbines on habitat.

Conservation banking is not without controversy, although it is one of the backbones of efforts to save species from extinction. Critics complain about transparency and accounting. This can make it unclear whether the programs are actually successful.

Conservation banking began in California in the 1980s. The first programs focused on habitat conservation for the smallest tern and a marine fish species living in tidal and subtidal habitats.

In addition to the lack of transparency, some people question what habitats are being used for conservation banking and whether this land is of low ecological value to the species or is not threatened with development. A study published in the journal last year sustainability, found evidence that this is happening with conservation banking, although it acknowledges the role conservation banking plays in protecting species from extinction.

However, biologist Stephanie Manes said conservation banking offers something that other endeavors like land clearing don’t: eternity.

“One-time habitat restoration alone is not a solution as the trees will come back,” she said.

Manes is a Senior Scientist at Grassland Conservation Services and works as a consultant for Common Ground Capital. She previously worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Current population estimates indicate that there are only about 500 birds in the southern population found in New Mexico. The Fish and Wildlife Service has divided the bird into two distinct population segments. While the northern population is listed as threatened, the southern population is endangered.

That’s because the southern population, with just 500 birds, is much more vulnerable to extreme weather events like drought and flooding or wildfires, Manes said. In contrast, the northern population has more than 30,000 birds.

Though it’s called a prairie chicken, the bird is actually a grouse and an important indicator of the health of the grassland-prairie ecosystem, she said.

Other species of prairie chicken and grouse have also experienced population decline and habitat fragmentation, leading to loss of genetic diversity. She gave the examples of the great prairie chicken and the Gunnison’s sage grouse.

Grouse species such as the smaller prairie chicken engage in what is known as lekking. The birds congregate at these leks, where the males show themselves by dancing. Usually only a few males are selected to mate with the females.

As habitat becomes more fragmented, genetic diversity in the islands of prairie chicken communities is shrinking faster than other species that rely on the same habitat, she said.

Habitat loss is mainly caused by encroachment of trees and shrubs. The prairie chicken avoids tall plants and structures that might provide perches for raptors chasing the grouse. Practices such as firefighting and livestock grazing have contributed to this habitat loss, as have changing weather patterns and climate change.

There are some tools that can be used to combat this habitat loss, Manes said.

“The first and most important thing is to raise awareness among the public and landowners, as well as policymakers and legislators,” she said.

Much of the prairie chicken’s habitat is on private land, making arrangements like the Kizer family’s conservation easements even more important.

Manes said landowners value being able to monetize their land and be able to pass it on to future generations.

The agreement creates a conservation easement that essentially prevents any portion of the Kizer ranch from being subdivided and converted into housing or otherwise developed that could harm the lesser prairie chicken habitat.

That doesn’t mean the Kizers have to give up the farming and ranching they’ve practiced for generations.

In fact, Kizer said the smaller prairie chicken benefits from the alfalfa and grains like sorghum his son plants. He said the prairie chickens are intelligent birds and can travel long distances to find their favorite food.

Walker said there have been voluntary conservation efforts to try to protect the smaller prairie chicken, including by industry groups.

“You get an A for effort,” he said.

However, Walker said effort doesn’t necessarily mean getting the desired result. Adding the smaller prairie chicken to the endangered species list is a final step in trying to save it, he said.

Walker said Common Ground Capital has conservation plans for oil and gas companies and renewable energy. That means oil and gas developers or renewable energy companies can buy loans to offset the impact of their operations, and those loans could make money for people like the Kizers.

On public lands, the government can impose restrictions and implement habitat projects to help endangered and threatened species.

But the bird doesn’t just depend on public lands, and when it comes to private lands, the government can’t dictate to landowners that they conserve habitats.

Paying ranchers to maintain habitat on their land can be a crucial tool, Walker said.

In rural eastern New Mexico, Walker said, “Private landowners will determine whether or not this bird has a chance of recovery.”