Ashland rancher Mark Gardiner is convinced the Idaho organization responsible for implementing a conservation program for the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas and four other states engaged in mismanagement that failed the colorful bird while squandering millions of dollars and valuable years of opportunity.


Gardiner, who works with the family’s prominent Angus herd and 40,000-acre operation in southwest Kansas amid prime grassland for the prairie chicken, said that conclusion was backed by an independent audit of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, headquartered in Boise, Idaho. The audit faulted WAFWA for fumbling voluntary investment by industry groups and participation of landowners since 2013 in a campaign to expand quality habitat for the dancing bird struggling to maintain footholds on the prairie, he said.


The robust analysis revealed WAFWA abused a portion of $30 million set aside by private investors for chicken habitat in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. The organization fell short in serving interests of energy, farming and livestock producers eager to coexist with the prairie chicken and prevent it from returning to the federal threatened species list, the audit said.


"They spent a lot of money, but didn’t solve the problem. This did not work. That was a missed opportunity," Gardiner said. "It was really squandering the money and not being a solution. Free enterprise and competition works and they did it to protect their own existence."


Performance of the conservation initiative could be a factor in an upcoming decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding proposals to re-establish federal regulatory protection of the lesser prairie chicken. The agency is expected to announce its findings in May 2021, with businesses and environmentalists in a tug-of-war over the future of government intervention.


U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said flaws in the program were real, but the lesser prairie chicken population had grown 121% since the peak of a drought in 2013. There were an estimated 17,000 birds in 2013 and about 38,000 in 2018.


He said the population expanded due to greater rainfall and on-the-ground conservation measures, not intervention available under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.


"While the voluntary initiatives currently in effect can and should be improved," Moran said, "I believe based on the available evidence that voluntary, locally driven solutions continue to offer the best path forward to conserving the lesser prairie chicken."


Brutal audit


The audit prepared by Ben Guillon, an expert on mitigation markets, for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies showed the organization failed to properly manage the conservation program, wasted funding to buy a $650,000 headquarters building in Idaho and improperly transferred money from the conservation endowment to fund administrative costs.


A copy of the July 2019 audit said WAFWA had "an organizational culture that prevents an effective management of the program," "does not track its liabilities properly and may not have enough assets to cover its future potential liabilities," "program spending on temporary mitigation is unsustainable," "does not properly administer the program from a financial standpoint" and fell short of providing "a net gain in conservation" objectives.


From $5 million to $7 million earmarked to reimburse landowners who engaged in conservation activities on their property was "improperly" used by WAFWA for employees’ salaries and other administrative costs, the audit said. An underlying conclusion of the audit was that nearly half the $65 million available to WAFWA for the lesser prairie chicken hadn’t been effectively invested.


The auditor offered four options: terminate the program without replacement, freeze the current program to block enrollment of additional land and investment, immediately transfer the program to a third party and restructure the program to restore financial sustainability, ecological integrity and professional execution.


Chris Moore, executive director of WAFWA, reported the audit identified structural and financial management issues the organization had to address. The association is a consortium of 24 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, with only one-fifth harboring prairie chickens.


"Based on the audit’s recommendations," Moore said, "WAFWA immediately took several actions to improve its short-term financial situation and organizational structure. WAFWA continues to implement new procedures and approaches to address the recommendations of the audit."


Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., said viability of the lesser prairie chicken was undermined by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by oil and gas development, cropland conversion, livestock grazing and construction of roads and power lines.


"The audit’s conclusions make clear WAFWA grossly mismanaged efforts to save the lesser prairie chicken from extinction," Greenwald said. "Given these revelations, there’s no question these magnificent dancing birds need the Endangered Species Act’s protections to have any hope of survival."


He said a robust regulatory framework enforced by the federal government would ensure prairie chicken conservation was prioritized.


Other reaction


The lesser prairie chicken was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened from 2014 to 2016. A Texas judge invalidated protections for the bird in response to a lawsuit alleging the federal agency rushed the listing process.


It has remained off that list under pressure from business and political interests based, in part, on the promise of WAFWA making progress to expand population of the shy bird.


WAFWA’s central strategy was to pay landowners to set aside prairie chicken habitat and allow other conservation activities using mitigation fees paid mostly by energy companies, who make the payments to offset habitat impact of their commercial activities. These investments are a way for companies to shield operation of oil or gas wells, wind turbines or transmission lines if the federal government took steps to protect the species.


Adam Riggsbee, president of RiverBank Conservation in Austin, Texas, said the audit disclosed major problems that could be manipulated by environmentalists in prairie chicken litigation. RiverBank manages conservation banks used to offset development in areas populated by endangered species.


He said WAFWA accepted millions of dollars from private companies for prairie chicken habitat, but made decisions that made it impossible to meet responsibilities to those contributors.


Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said businesses made a good-faith effort to support what was to have been a self-sustaining habitat development program led by WAWFA. The organization clearly weakened its position with the prairie chicken by shifting conservation money to general operations, he said.


He said bad decisions undercut the objective of locking down tracts of land in easements to expand prairie chicken strongholds, many of which remain in southwest Kansas.


"If we’re going to hope to help this species, we need to preserve those areas. Not let them get broken up by development," Loveless said.


Administrative struggles at WAFWA will intensify debate about the comparative value of voluntary measures versus federal mandates regarding the prairie chicken, he said.


"In the business world, which is my background, you want certainty so you know how to make good business decisions going forward. Uncertainty is the enemy," he said.


He said the WAFWA intervention program created for the lesser prairie chicken could be salvaged.


"For the sake of the bird, we have to," Loveless said. "This is an important critter for us. The bird is depending on us to look out for it. Not that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to take some more money. It’s going to take some tough management decisions."