State wildlife Director Richard Hatcher answered questions from The Oklahoman last week about the population decline of lesser prairie chickens and bobwhite quail.
How dire is the situation with lesser prairie chickens? It’s dire. Lesser prairie chickens have been in decline for decades, and the threats to the prairie chickens are only increasing.
What is the population estimate of lesser prairie chickens in Oklahoma? About 2,000 to 3,000 birds.
What is the possibility they will be listed as an endangered species? They are currently listed as a candidate species which means they are being reviewed annually for listing under the Endangered Species Act. We are in that process right now. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a determination this year for a proposed listing.
What do you think will happen? I think they will be proposed for either threatened or endangered. If I were to guess, maybe threatened, but I am still optimistic that we can demonstrate to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the states can manage this species better than what would happen under the Endangered Species Act.
Why would it be bad if they are listed for protection? I think because there would be fewer options to the state for management. Once they are listed, the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service has very specific things it has to consider in any activity that would be in prairie chicken habitat. We have more options as states if they are not listed.
What are the reasons for the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat? It’s mostly fragmentation. There are a lot of different causes for fragmentation from smaller ownership patterns. More houses. More telephone poles. Invasive species like the eastern red cedar. Less prescribed fire which causes more brush to come up which is poorer habitat. And, of course, the growth in the energy industry.
Can the birds coexist with wind energy? Not side by side. If we can find enough areas that we can maintain quality habitat, then yes, we can have wind power development and maintain sustainable populations of prairie chickens.
How many energy companies have given money to the Wildlife Department in compensation for projects in lesser prairie chicken country? The only money we have received was from OG&E. We received two payments to help recover the species in other areas to offset loss of habitat from wind farms they are purchasing power from. We have recently signed an agreement with another company, Chermac. In the event that a transmission line is developed, then they have also agreed to offer a voluntary offset payment. They, along with several other companies, are using our planning tool to help avoid the most critical or most important remaining habitat areas.
This is not just blood money? No. To keep it from going that way, we use a process of avoid first. For example, we worked with Chermac for several years to get the best possible route to avoid prairie chicken habitat. Then, we move to minimize the impacts to prairie chicken habitat, and only third is to mitigate. Since there is no requirement for mitigation, we call it voluntary offset. That’s the third and final option. We never start there.
Why should anyone care about lesser prairie chickens? It’s an indication that something is changing on the prairie. One of the things that we have to look at in any population decline is not only what is important about that species, but what is causing the decline. Is that something that we, in our society now, are willing to live with and accept the losses because of the benefits that come from the reasons for that habitat loss? We need to be able to make an informed decision.
Are bobwhite quail following the same path as the lesser prairie chickens? Quail are in decline, but they are not following the same path. Their requirements are not as stringent as prairie chickens for large expanses of prairie. We are engaged in a lot of research to determine what are causing quail declines. We have always preached loss of habitat and weather. Now, we are looking at other options, too, like diseases and toxins. Quail are in serious decline, but they are not a lost cause.