The story of the lesser prairie chicken exemplifies why many Americans are wary of – if not downright hostile to — environmentalists.
When federal officials, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, moved to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, the decision was immediately attacked by most Western Republicans, the oil industry and many agriculture-related groups.
Typically, declaring an animal “threatened” or “endangered” means a long list of restrictions and prohibitions. In this case, the federal government promoted what it called voluntary measures, but which opponents argued were severe restrictions on when and how oil companies could explore for oil and maintain wells. Farmers, ranchers and others who owned land deemed important habitat were subject to the same voluntary-but-not-really rules.
Federal officials did not act suddenly or randomly when they announced their intentions in late 2012 to list the bird as threatened. They were responding to a long legal campaign by environmental groups.
Increasingly, environmentalists use serial lawsuits to win their political battles. They go to court for years or decades to force the federal government to take certain actions.
In the case of the lesser prairie chicken, they got lucky, finally, when a prolonged drought struck while a sympathetic president was in office.
Drought takes a toll on wildlife, and the three-year drought in the southwest was both severe and widespread.
Nature is not a Walt Disney movie. In such times of duress, animals starve, fail to reproduce and succumb more easily to disease. It wasn’t just lesser prairie chickens that suffered, but pheasants, frogs and numerous other species.
Environmentalists and federal officials exploited the situation to justify new regulatory protections for the bird.
The restrictions and prohibitions covered the birds’ known habitat, especially breeding areas known as leks. The federal rules affected parts of five states: Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.
To many in the region, the move was another effort of government to grab more control over their land, their businesses and their lives.
They argued that the birds’ numbers would rebound when the drought ended.
The oil and gas industry filed its own lawsuit to challenge the new regulations.
In 2015, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately study the issue before making its decision. A year later, the Obama administration dropped plans to appeal.
By then, the region had recovered from the drought. Bird numbers had rebounded.
A survey of lesser prairie chickens conducted by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2016 showed the population had soared to more than 25,000, from less than 18,000 three years earlier.
This year’s survey showed another huge jump, to more than 33,000 birds.
Wildlife biologists warn, however, that the survey was taken before a late spring blizzard blasted through the area during the prime nesting period.
Also, aerial surveys are not exact, officials said.
“The bottom line is that the population trend over the last five years indicates a stable population, which is good news for all involved in lesser prairie-chicken conservation efforts,” said Roger Wolfe, program manager for the lesser prairie chicken project for WAFWA.
The project is one arm of a multi-faceted effort to nurture survival of the species. The initiative also involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a network of individual property owners and state and non-government organizations.
Officials credit the initiative and the weather for the huge turnaround in bird numbers.
Unimpressed, environmentalists restarted their legal battle to get the lesser prairie chicken re-listed.
They claim that the science and surveys that show bird populations are stable or growing are suspect.
So it seems that many environmentalists who criticize others for refusing to accept the science of climate change are similarly tempted to dismiss science that doesn’t fit their political views.
It’s another case in which politics trump science.
When that happens, whether on the right or the left, Americans lose trust in both government and science.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.