By Gene Richardson
Most of us in agriculture appreciate the benefits and the enhancement that wildlife brings to our land. If given an opportunity to have production agriculture and wildlife coexist with a profit, we are definitely on board.
That’s the offer coming the way of Texas farmers and ranchers from a new voluntary conservation program called Habitat Exchange. Developed through a partnership between Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) and other agriculture groups, oil and gas companies, conservation groups, academics and government, the exchange would allow landowners to get paid for creating habitat for wildlife that might otherwise be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
This stakeholder plan was designed to be voluntary and benefits both landowners and wildlife—and the timing couldn’t be better. The lesser prairie-chicken, a ground-dwelling grouse, roams mainly on private lands spanning Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed listing the bird as threatened, with a final decision expected in March 2014
When it comes to wildlife like the lesser prairie-chicken, the last thing we want is for the federal government to come in and list the species. TFB hopes it will be possible to get enough conservation from the Habitat Exchange to reverse species declines so that a federal listing will no longer be needed.
Even if the species ultimately gets listed, the Habitat Exchange still works. We believe that a scientifically robust Habitat Exchange can recover the bird, move it off the list, and regain our hunting heritage. TFB is working hard to win USFWS approval of the exchange.
The Habitat Exchange concept is simple: Developers pay landowners, such as farmers and ranchers, to voluntarily create, maintain and restore habitat on their property.
For example, landowners and operators willing to restore habitat would generate credits by undertaking certain conservation activities, such as managed grazing, prescribed fire and marking fences. The development of new oil and gas or wind energy would require industry to offset the impact on the chicken’s habitat by purchasing these credits at auction.
For Texas farmers and ranchers, Habitat Exchange means new income and the flexibility to continue to engage in a variety of agricultural practices. Texas ranchers were part of a pilot Habitat Exchange for the golden-cheeked warbler at the Fort Hood Army base. It allowed the Army to offset impacts from operations by purchasing millions of dollars in conservation credits from landowners.
Habitat Exchange is a good deal for Texas farmers—a voluntary program that provides new income, and allows us to continue working our land. It’s a deal worth making.
Photo: Gerard Bertrand, Texas Parks & Wildlife