The greater good is tied to the fate of the smaller prairie chickens

January 7th – The name alone is cruel irony.

Little prairie chicken.

Makes me scream

In fact, it should make us all cry, because the lesser prairie chicken — a sage grouse that once filled the endless grasslands of eastern New Mexico and much of that nation’s southern plains — is little more than a plain fire or hailstorm away from extinction, at least in this state.

Numbers are better elsewhere, but some estimates place New Mexico prairie chicken numbers in the low four-digit range. It could be closer to 500. This is an obituary.

And while this sad possibility is well known in the conservation community, for much of the public it was an eye roll, a shrug.

And I partly blame the name for that.

If the species had been named Llano Estacado Chicken Hawk or Portales passerine—I’m kidding, but everything is more than less—the bird might not be the youngest environmental canary in a coal mine.

But that’s it.

“It’s a bird that needs wide grasslands, and indeed it’s in trouble,” says Wayne Walker, a businessman who has become one of the species’ biggest proponents. “That means there are many other things in trouble.”

In eastern New Mexico, western Texas and three other states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado) there is an acute need for chickens to have large areas. Granted, these places aren’t exactly New Jersey, lined with freeways, malls, and Levittowns. But the landscape of the plains is fragile and littered with oil wells, pipelines, transmission lines and human intervention.

Add climate change and you have the makings of big problems.

“The prairie chicken suffers from sheer lack of habitat,” says Walker. “We just need more. And they suffer from habitat fragmentation.”

What does that mean? Walker goes to the plate.

“You know, we have a good living space, but people build wind farms. They sell big ranches and… hack them. And everyone has a house. Everyone has a road. Everyone has a power pole, oil and gas production,” he says. “I mean, we just need these big landscapes for this bird … tens of thousands of acres connected without a few vertical structures. That’s what this bird needs. And that’s what he doesn’t get.”

Walker runs a company called LPC Conservation that caters to landowners and offers them a market value for their land for conservation while allowing for the possibility of traditional uses such as ranching. He has become a megaphone for thinking differently about biodiversity and business.

It’s not enough to hope that the bird, listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, will save it, he says.

He advocates a scenario in which government, landowners, and private capital—plus an understanding that the price of land must rise—work together to create larger, and hopefully contiguous, safe havens for the smaller prairie chickens to roam.

There are a few strongholds in New Mexico where this happens, including onshore in southern Roosevelt County. But Walker dreams of cobbling together larger contiguous tracts of land to protect the bird, perhaps as extensive as 200,000 acres.

Like many dreams, this one is not easy to achieve. Walker says he’s had many doors slammed in his face over the years by skeptical landowners. He hopes some will see that by looking at conservation as a source of income, they can actually make real money and maybe even save their land for their heirs.

Walker’s company has teamed up with a few ranches in the Pep/Milnesand metroplex to get a foothold in the chicken. But the more he talks, the more obvious it becomes that it will take a mindset shift for the idea to take off. For years we as a nation have accepted that there are winners and losers in the environment, and the losers were more expendable because they had weird names, or were hard to spot, or didn’t have enough supporters — or worst of all, because they didn’t make money.

The problem is that the fate of the losers eventually becomes the fate of the winners.

Walker says it’s possible to have private interests and the outdoors side by side. But he concedes this will require a total mindset shift when it comes to saving a species like the chicken.

Industry, including oil and gas, may not see it that way.

“The hardest thing is that people are thinking about how they can both win,” he says, referring to private interests and Mother Nature.

Right now, the smaller prairie chicken is struggling to stay alive, if not aloft. I hope the sky doesn’t fall in the meantime.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.