Opinion: Fish, wildlife agency was a failed state bureaucracy — let’s move on!

June 13th, 2021 The Oaklahoman


I am a lifelong entrepreneur who grew up in the oil and gas business — my father spent his career drilling wells in the southern plains. I also am a rancher who knows the pressures of modern-day ranching.

The proposed “endangered” and “threatened” listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken is a sad but predictable result that could have been avoided. It was supposed to be prevented by a regional state bureaucracy — the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies — that collected $60 million from oil and gas and accomplished very little in terms of conservation.

But onerous penalties under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will not help the bird either. We need positive, market-based incentives provided by the private sector under the ESA. There is still a chance for ranchers to help save the bird, protect their own property rights and get paid a market price for their good stewardship.

The best approach now is to get real conservation on the ground, in the right place, that pays a fair market price to landowners for their stewardship past and future. And, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has to “count” these habitat conservation plans.

A final listing decision next year would penalize landowners. A separate action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could also put the market-based incentive plan in motion. The incentive is simple: energy developers can protect themselves from ESA listings and penalties by paying landowners a market price to protect and recover the Lesser Prairie Chicken under a new habitat conservation plan (HCP) program under final review with the USFWS.

This incentive played a lead role in getting the American Burying Beetle down listed just last year right here in Oklahoma.

As a rancher with my own award-winning family ranch, recently earning the Lone Star award for conservation in West Texas and part owner of a ranch in eastern Oklahoma, I understand the pressures of a federal ESA listing on private land —especially without market-based compensation.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can jumpstart the incentive approach by allowing WAFWA to use the remaining $20 million to buy these private credits as compensation for failure. Or, oil and gas can ask for their money back, and then spend it on a reliable solution!

There is an impact mitigation industry out there of people like me who want to see this bird thrive and not become extinct. The best LPC habitat sites, and there are very few of them left, are with private ranches and these ranchers want to deal with private sector minded people like me, not a five state bureaucracy. The WAFWA program was a failed experiment. The punitive ESA approach is a well-known dead end.  Let’s work together now with private sector interests in oil and gas and private conservation banks, and our federal agencies — for responsible and effective species conservation.

It’s the only way we are going to turn this situation around.