I’m thrilled to announce that we have scored a monumental legal victory for the Joshua tree, as well as climate-imperiled species across the country.
A federal judge—a George W. Bush appointee no less—recently ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the law when it failed to list the imperiled Joshua tree under the Endangered Species Act.
When the very icons and namesakes that define America’s national parks can no longer survive, WildEarth Guardians springs into action. That’s what Guardians do—relentlessly protect and defend the vulnerable.
WildEarth Guardians pursued this case for the past two years because we believe in holding the government accountable for following the science to stop extinction. And, in this case, all of the available scientific evidence points to the same unambiguous conclusion: Joshua trees will be in danger of extinction throughout most of their current range by century’s end—from climate-change-driven habitat loss, invasive-grass-fueled wildfire, and other stressors.
This decision is a big leap forward not only for the protection of iconic Joshua trees, but for all climate-imperiled species. As a result of Guardians’ tenacity, the federal government must confront the reality of climate change and issue a new decision. We believe that decision can reach only one conclusion: it’s time to protect the Joshua tree. That’s what we’ll be fighting for. That’s because there’s simply no other conclusion to reach when the agency considers all of the best science—including climate science.
Your support made this victory possible! You have shared the plight of the Joshua tree on social media and within your networks. Thousands of you have urged the previous administration and the Biden administration to defend these icons of the American West—just as you’ve done with grizzly bears, gray wolves, Canada lynx, and sage grouse.
Your continued support will allow us to keep fighting for the Joshua tree, and all the endangered icons of the American West.
Salmon and steelhead now have a fighting chance—because of our success and your support!
Tonight, one hour before sunset, the spillway at Foster Dam on the South Santiam River in Oregon will open and begin releasing water so young spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead can move more quickly and safely on their downstream migration to the Pacific Ocean. This is critically important for their survival.
This watershed moment for the recovery of threatened salmon and steelhead was made possible because of successful legal action taken by WildEarth Guardians, Advocates for the West, Native Fish Society, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.
In 2018, we sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failing to save Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead from extinction. Last month, Judge Marco Hernández unequivocally agreed, stating, “the Court has no patience for further delay or obfuscation in this matter.” And now action is happening!
Because of our successful lawsuit, operations at multiple dams must be modified to prioritize fish passage and water quality, which is vital to ensuring native fish and ecosystems can thrive. There is renewed hope today for western rivers, including Oregon’s Willamette!
Stay tuned over the next few months as we share exciting updates on the cascade of positive actions as they happen in real time.
Your actions and financial support have been vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction—you helped make this victory possible. Your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.
As September reached its halfway point, trophy hunters were let loose across Montana—including on the edges of Yellowstone National Park—to hunt for some of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s most iconic and ecologically charismatic species: wolves.
Restraints that had formerly limited the kill to one wolf in this hunting zone, to reduce the likelihood of harming Yellowstone’s wolves and ecosystems, had recently been wiped away by Montana officials.
Within a few days, hunters shot three wolves dead in the zone bordering America’s first national park. We do not yet know if the wolves were adventurous, young males out on their own or if they were critical members of a family of Yellowstone wolves—perhaps even alpha females or males.
Montana’s cruel 2021 wolf hunt is championed not by the state’s wildlife management agency, but by wolf-hating forces in the Montana legislature.
The methods sanctioned by the legislature and signed into law by Montana’s wolf-killing Governor Greg Gianforte, include hunting with night vision scopes, strangulating snares, baiting of wolves, and bounties. These brutal means of slaughtering wolves harken back to another era, when wolves were eradicated from the landscape of the American West.
As the six-month wolf hunting season turns from fall to winter, the death toll will certainly rise as this catastrophe plays out. If the state of Montana fulfills its ambitions, the wolf killings won’t stop until the body count reaches 450—half of Montana’s entire wolf population. If a similar plan fueled by wolf hostility in Idaho meets its goal, 90% of the state’s wolves will be eradicated and the body count in the Northern Rockies could reach into the thousands.
I don’t like writing these words, but they are painfully true. I am sickened and heartbroken.
The hunts glorify cruelty, but they also reinforce a narrative built on lies. Montana and Idaho’s legislators lied to get these measures passed. They lied about wolves reducing opportunities to hunt deer and elk. They lied about the impact of wolves on animal agriculture. And they used their biggest lie of all, that wolves threaten children and people, to create and reinforce fear.
For years the rallying cry of hunters, so vehemently and violently opposed to wolves in the Northern Rockies, has been to ‘smoke a pack a day.’ That means they intend to use their high-powered rifles to kill an entire pack of wolves in one day.
That’s not just a cruel slogan—now, it’s public policy in Montana and Idaho.
There’s only one conclusion for the rational or compassionate among us. For iconic, charismatic species like wolves, who roam across state boundaries and even international borders, the states shouldn’t be calling the shots. Wolves are not only intrinsically valuable, they are part of a public trust that serves and benefits all Americans.
At our nation’s founding, the states were intended to be laboratories of the best form of governance. Instead, at their worst, they’ve become incubators for hate and violence that’s often built on a foundation of lies.
A brief ray of hope came on the same day the Montana hunt began, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, in response to Endangered Species Act listing petitions from my organization and others, that wolves in the American West may warrant federal protections.
But that reprieve won’t come in time for countless wolves that will die this year. That’s why there needs to be a deeper reckoning amongst the wildlife profession and its leaders. There is something profoundly wrong when entire packs of Yellowstone wolves can be slaughtered a few feet outside Yellowstone National Park.
When hunters shot the first wolves of the Montana hunting season, there was individual glory. But I am almost certain that wolves howled in grief. I have heard these howls before on the nights after some of Yellowstone’s most iconic wolves lost alpha members to hunter’s bullets.
Though trophy hunters claim glory, I know millions of Americans will also collectively grieve for the loss of America’s wolves. We must use that grief to fuel our push to secure the protections that wolves now so desperately need.
Please write President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and demand the Biden administration immediately restore Endangered Species Act protections to all gray wolves in the lower 48 states.
Over the past few years, tens of thousands of you have signed our petitions, sent letters, and called officials to demand protection for wolves. Thank you! Now, please stand with us again today and consider supporting Guardians’ Wolf Defense Fund. Together, we will secure a future for the gray wolf.
Like what you just read? Sign up for our E-news. Want to do more? Visit our Action Center.
Wolves are set to return to Colorado by the end of 2023. The state has made some progress for native wildlife, but challenges remain. We need your help to ensure wolves are welcomed back to the Centennial State.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) is in the process of writing a plan for wolf reintroduction. And there are real concerns that the agency’s cultural antagonism toward carnivores will permeate the plan. So far, conversations have focused on lethal management and the concerns of outfitters and ranchers.
The emphasis instead should be on ensuring that wolves reinhabit their historic range and bring balance to their native ecosystems. Fortunately, WildEarth Guardians and our allies have done the research and collaboration to create a template for such a plan. Now we need you to tell CPW to use it.
Write a comment to CPW urging them to rely on science and public values when drafting a wolf plan for Colorado. Some key points you can use for your comment:
- The planning process needs to be equitable, inclusive, transparent, and representative of all Coloradans.
- Tribal rights and values, tribal sovereignty, and traditional ecological knowledge need to be respected.
- No recreational wolf hunting or trapping—these practices serve no ecological value, are cruel, may encourage illegal killing, and can exacerbate conflict.
- A system of proactive, non-lethal conflict deterrence that includes accountability measures and adequate oversight is essential.
- Funding for education and awareness programs must be provided.
Public comments are due by midnight on August 31, so don’t delay submit your comment today!
After gearing up for the culmination of Guardians’ nearly two-year long court battle to secure federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the imperiled Joshua tree—an August 2 hearing before Judge Otis D. Wright, II of the Central District of California—my brain is teeming with factoids about these beloved plants and the perils so many Mojave Desert dwellers face.
The combined threats of climate change, invasive grass-fueled wildfires, human expansion, and habitat degradation have already reduced the richness of the region’s biodiversity by about fifty percent over the last century. Striking losses of bird communities are increasingly evident. Recent studies describe mass die-offs of other regionally endemic plants from prolonged droughts. Records from Twentynine Palms weather station show that not only have average daytime temperatures already increased 2° F over the last 40 years, but nighttime lows in the area are nearly 8° above average—so even if precipitation levels don’t decline (though they already have) the evaporation rate is much higher so less water actually reaches the desert floor to get soaked up by native plants. Graveyards of charred Joshua trees now blanket the Mojave National Preserve after 2020’s Dome fire swept through and destroyed an estimated 1.3 million of these majestic desert icons. And for the past two consecutive years, summertime temps have reached a mind-numbing 130° F.
Desert ecologists believe that many Joshua trees are now living in an environment that is no longer conducive to replacing themselves—older trees in hotter and drier portions of the Mojave are dying off and researchers aren’t finding any baby trees in those areas to replace them. But even aside from the lack of new, young Joshua trees in much of the southern Mojave, every peer-reviewed study to model future climate impacts to this species agrees that most of their current range will be rendered climatically unsuitable by the end of the 21st century under the most likely greenhouse gas emissions scenarios—including nearly the complete extirpation of Joshua trees from their own namesake, Joshua Tree National Park.
In other words, all the available scientific evidence points in one direction: Joshua trees will be in danger of extinction throughout most of their current range by century’s end. This dismal projection need only be “likely” for Joshua trees to meet the ESA’s definition of a “threatened” species and be entitled to the Act’s broad federal protections. Indeed, this whole concept of protecting threatened species (as opposed to only those that are already “endangered” with the risk of imminent extinction) reflects what our federal courts have dubbed the ESA’s policy of “institutionalized caution”—to conserve species before they’re conclusively headed for extinction.
Sadly, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service chose to deliberately ignore a wealth of science showing the Mojave will undergo truly profound transformations in the coming decades. Instead, the agency summarily concluded that Joshua trees are long-lived, hardy desert plants distributed over broad geographic areas so that must mean they’ll be able to weather climate change and various other combined stressors.
Given just how blatant the agency’s conscious disregard of the available science was, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Judge Wright suggested at the outset of our hearing two weeks ago that Guardians’ position was more reasonable than the government’s. In fact, Judge Wright indicated that the clarity of Guardians’ legal arguments and the record science obviated the need for any additional oral argument from me (lead counsel). He asked only one question to defendants: would USFWS consider redoing its decision not to list the Joshua tree? Alas, the government’s attorney responded with a strident “NO.” So while we’re disappointed with the Biden administration’s refusal to voluntarily walk away from this terrible Trump-era listing decision, we’re left at least feeling optimistic that the Court will now wade past all USFWS’s pleas for deference, its unsupported assertions and selective cherry-picking of the record evidence, and force the government’s hand at a better decision.
We know Joshua trees are long-lived plants that have evolved to withstand harsh desert conditions, but living on the edge of what is already one of the most extreme environments is precisely why this species is so vulnerable to further rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, and uncharacteristically severe fires. We also know that the ESA isn’t the legal mechanism to solve climate change. But it can give climate threatened species like the Joshua tree a fighting chance.
If listed, USFWS would be required under the Act to develop a “recovery plan” and formally designate “critical habitat” for the Joshua tree. In this case, that would likely necessitate protecting higher elevation areas that climate modeling experts predict will have the right temperatures and precipitation levels in the future for Joshua trees to successfully reproduce and survive. But these areas (see all that land depicted in green on the map above) are far too distant for these stationary plants and their sole obligate pollinator (a Yucca moth that can only fly a few hundred feet at best) to migrate to on their own, before their current habitat is lost. So, in all likelihood, Joshua trees will need a recovery plan that involves human assisted migration to persist beyond the 21st century. It’ll also likely necessitate increased efforts to combat invasive grasses that are fueling so many devastating fires in this region.
Those are the efforts USFWS should be devoting its limited resources to—not litigating its deeply flawed listing decision. Here’s to hoping a favorable court decision will now drive the Joshua tree’s preservation. In the meantime, please take action and urge the Biden administration to protect Joshua trees.
Idaho’s new wolf killing law authorizing the slaughter of up to 90% of wolves in the state went into effect on July 1. Already trappers and hunters have brutally killed wolf pups in dens and entire families of wolves. It’s as bad as we imagined and likely will get worse.
Right now, Montana’s Fish & Wildlife Commission is charged with implementing new laws that expand the wolf trapping season, authorize strangulation snares, and allow bait to lure wolves and even hunting with night vision scopes. Once executed, the new laws could lead to thousands of wolves slaughtered across the northern Rockies in the coming months.
We, as Guardians, are working to stop the cruelty and bloodshed not only in Idaho and Montana, but across our nation.
Since January, we’ve been in court challenging the Trump administration’s delisting of gray wolves across most of the lower 48 states.
In May, we called on the Biden administration to immediately restore Endangered Species Act protections to gray wolves in the northern Rockies.
In June, we launched a campaign to overhaul state management of wolves, releasing planning guides and resources for management agencies, and creating advocacy tools and roadmaps for wolf advocates to demand change from the agencies that manage—and too often kill—wolves.
We’ll need your help—with both your actions and your financial support—if we are to succeed. One of the most impactful ways to bring about our vision for wolves is by joining our Wild Bunch with a sustaining monthly gift.
More than 500 Guardians just like you have already signed up as monthly donors. I invite you to join me, and them, as Wild Bunch sustaining members. For wolves. For coexistence. For our shared future.
A federal judge has issued a win to WildEarth Guardians and our partners—rejecting crucial aspects of the Flathead National Forest’s revised forest plan that would have paved the way for increased road building and logging on the forest in northwest Montana.
This is a major victory for federally threatened grizzly bears and bull trout, whose population numbers had benefited from the prior forest plan’s more protective road management requirements.
The lawsuit challenged the Forest Service’s decision to abandon key road management requirements despite them being more protective of wildlife habitat and supported by best available science. Exiting the courthouse after oral arguments, I felt cautiously optimistic about Guardians’ chances of success. Thankfully, my gut feeling was spot on.
The judge held the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion for the U.S. Forest Service’s revised forest plan failed to justify or explain the weakening of protections for grizzly bears and bull trout, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court also rejected the Forest Service’s reliance on the flawed biological opinion.
This win is likely to have even broader implications beyond the Flathead. The judge ruled that the agencies must consider impacts of the revised plan to the entire grizzly bear population in the lower-48 states, not just the smaller disparate population on the Flathead. The goal under the ESA is survival and recovery of all six grizzly bear ecosystems to ensure, among other things, long-term genetic diversity.
But the fight is not over yet. We are continuing to diligently track the federal agencies’ actions in response to the court order to ensure this legal win equates to real on-the-ground results for grizzly bears and bull trout. Your support is crucial for Guardians to see the work through for the benefit of grizzly bears and bull trout.
This is a heart-wrenching story Carter Niemeyer shared on social media about the on-going persecution of wolves in Idaho at the hands of the state and federal government. Niemeyer retired in 2006 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where he was the wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho. In 2010 he wrote his first memoir, Wolfer. He published his second collection of stories, Wolf Land, in March 2016.
After you read Carter Niemeyer’s account, please take action for wolves in the northern Rockies.
I’m providing a Facebook story of ongoing persecution of a public lands wolf pack called the Timberline wolves in Idaho. This is a true account beginning in August of 2003, when I trapped and radio collared an adult female wolf and ear tagged a pup north of Idaho City, Idaho, an hour drive north of Boise.
The pack was new and I had just discovered them. I watched two adult wolves cross the road in front of my truck one evening and howled up pups that night nearby. I set traps and camped, catching the adult female alongside a Forest Service Road. The male pup was too young to radio collar so I just clipped a tag in his ear and released him.
I reported the discovery to the US Fish and Wildlife Service where I worked and also communicated with Suzanne Stone, the regional representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Boise. Suzanne had a working relationship with Dick Jordan, who taught science at Timberline High School in Boise and was an advocate for wolves and gray wolf recovery. The two contacted me to see if the new pack could be named the Timberline Pack since the school mascot was the wolf – no problem!
The Timberline wolves have always lived on public lands – part of the Boise National Forest. They primarily survive by eating elk. Life for the wolves was good with the exception of one major problem—domestic sheep graze annually on Boise National Forest and wolves, along with other predators, sometimes kill sheep. A federal agency known as Wildlife Services are notified by livestock producers whenever predators killed sheep or cattle.
It wasn’t uncommon for some Timberline wolves to be killed by Wildlife Services to pay the price of preying on sheep. Wolves were removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in Idaho and Montana in 2011. That opened the door to wolf hunting which added to the mortality of additional Timberline wolves. Then foothold trapping was permitted too. The Timberline pack has persisted for 18 years though constantly persecuted—native wolves killed for eating non-native domestic sheep on a public lands national forest.
I’ve kept track of the pack, more or less, over the years due to my personal connection to the founding members back in 2003. The wolves have been able to outsmart people and persist from one year to the next but life isn’t easy staying out of the gunsights, foothold traps and neck snares. In recent years the breeding female of the pack raised several litters of pups although she was missing one of her legs – she obviously survived a bullet, trap or snare.
Last year, she and her pack lived in the Grimes Creek area not far from Garden Valley, Idaho but were invaded by domestic sheep. Wildlife Services set traps, caught and radio collared one of the adult wolves – the capture wasn’t very professional since other wolf researchers in the area found the collared wolf along a trail laying in the hot sun on a 90 degree day – researchers saw to its welfare and it did survive.
Coincidentally, my wife Jenny and I were in the same area with out-of-town guests, the Bureau Chief for the LA Times and his fiancée, who had never heard wolves howl in the wild. The same day the wolf was trapped we unknowingly camped nearby and howled up the Timberline wolves and their puppies that night. Any night that a person can hear wolves is an experience of immense pleasure and a unique opportunity shared by few. Though the sky and forest were thick with smoke from nearby fires and the temperature unbearable, the wolves provided relief and a distraction from the discomforts of climate change. We indulged and recorded the howls with a parabolic cone.
I was distressed to know that Wildlife Services were out to destroy this pack on public land. but not surprised. I made some calls and complained – killing predators is a tradition and culture in Idaho and the institutions that promote predator control don’t respond to criticism and carry on with the support of the governor, legislature, Idaho Fish and Game and those that decry wolves eating wild prey like deer, elk and moose or killing the occasional domestic sheep or calf – business as usual.
Winter came and the Timberline wolves continued to live on the national forest lands but hunters and trappers continued to harass them even after Wildlife Services went home. The old three-legged female who led the pack for several years through all of the dangerous, human dominated terrain finally miscalculated and walked into a trappers snare – she died either by strangulation or a gunshot. The pack was at risk once more, as they have been for nearly two decades.
But Timberline rallied this spring and had another litter of pups. One big problem is that the new breeding pair were wearing at least one radio collar that revealed their whereabouts to Wildlife Services and Idaho Fish and Game. For wolf packs like Timberline who have a track record of killing livestock – those agencies mark them with collars – not for study – but for lethal removal whenever the agencies decide they want to…….
Fast forward to the spring of 2021, the wolves gave birth to at least four puppies on public land going about their business of being wolves. BUT the rules in Idaho have changed or become lax when it comes to wolves – wolves are vermin now. The state of Idaho wants wolf numbers dramatically reduced – from 1500 to, perhaps, 450……… No more quotas on the numbers a hunter or trapper can kill with traps, snares, guns, and even hound dogs or night scopes on their rifles…….. just about anything goes these days.
In fact, beginning around May 18, 2021, the powers-that-be decided the Timberline wolf pups should die at their den. A pre-emptive strike – kill the wolf pups before the adult wolves kill the sheep. Yes, Idaho has moved on from wolf recovery efforts to wolf removal – maybe the late 1800s and early 1900s all over again……. eliminate as many as possible!
At least four Timberline puppies were killed before their lives even began. They weren’t permitted to live because domestic livestock prevails in Idaho – even on public lands. These aren’t the first pups to die. Wildlife Services has been killing wolf pups in the past. And private individuals too – a litter of at least 8 pups died in their den in the Idaho Pandhandle this spring when only a few days old.
Did you know that bounties are being offered and paid for dead wolves in Idaho? Wolves can be killed year round and the wolf killers can collect from $650-$1000. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Idaho Fish and Game Commission are contributing to the bounty fund (but they call it an “incentive”)….. The bounty payments could certainly be extended to wolf pups too……. no exceptions that I am aware of………. all you need to be is callous enough to crawl in the den and kill them by bludgeoning or gunshot………
The two adult wolves have lost their pups but the mother wolf still revisits her den…….. wondering where her pups have gone….. her instincts telling her she needs to feed and nurse them but only the smell of something horrible lingers at the den site…….. the stench of humans……… the kind that even kill pups that haven’t experienced life….. I’ve seen and heard it all in my career.
It feels good to win.
WildEarth Guardians, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Native Fish Society, Advocates for the West, our experts, tribes, and agency biologists have said all along: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is failing to save Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead from extinction.
And now a federal judge unequivocally agrees and demands action.
In a strongly worded order issued on July 15, 2021, Judge Marco Hernández declared “the Corps has fought tooth and nail to resist implementing interim fish passage and water quality measures that it was supposed to begin implementing a decade ago” and stated “the Court has no patience for further delay or obfuscation in this matter.”
Now the Corps is on the hook—no pun intended—to implement twenty actions with specific deadlines at multiple dams throughout the Willamette River basin. Most of these actions imposed by the Court were requested by Guardians and our coalition.
No more excuses from the Corps!
Thanks to our successful lawsuit, operations at multiple dams will be modified to prioritize fish passage, a step toward ensuring native fish and ecosystems can thrive. There is renewed hope for western rivers, including Oregon’s Willamette, which are strangled by dams that impede natural flows, block fish migration, and negatively impact water quality. The perilous decline in wild fish will be stopped.
Your actions and financial support are vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction. You helped make this victory possible. Your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.
It’s hard to imagine a name less befitting the grandeur of the endangered grouse than “lesser prairie chicken.” Trifling grouse, maybe? Boring ground bird? It’s hard to say which is the worst. All of them fall far short in capturing the striking physical appearance and peculiar mating behavior of the prairie denizen.
Sure, the lesser prairie chicken wambles a bit in flight because of a body that looks like a partially deflated balloon. But this bird also boasts coral-colored throat sacs, bright orange eye combs, and expressive ear tufts that stand up like a headdress when the male is engaged in pageantry and droop in hangdog fashion following a rejection or a defeat in battle. In a weird way, the incongruity between the prairie chicken’s plump shape and brilliant adornments only adds to its allure. It’s nature’s equivalent of the family station wagon tricked out with racing stripes and a rear spoiler. It’s impossible not to watch as it cruises by.
The lesser prairie chicken’s mating behavior might be even more fascinating than its appearance. When lesser prairie-chickens lek (breed), a whole host of males will compete for some personal space in the sand sage so that they can entice females to view an elaborate mating display. The few females that dare enter this obstreperous battle ground are pursued relentlessly, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the human dating scene. The males will puff and stunt and grapple as they struggle for attention. Erratic clashes send peppery feathers flying through the air to get caught in the grama stalks and sagebrush. The bird becomes a blaze of sunset colors as he stamps, shuffles, and bobs among the buffalo grass. He will genuflect before a female, wings spread out on the ground, his tail lifted. Or perhaps he’ll perform a flutter jump with quick flaps of striped wings. The dance is a signal of both fitness and intelligence, and females choose the prospective mate with the smartest moves.
The sweetness of the song matters, too, and males will trill and chortle in their attempt to win a female chicken’s approval. When male chickens pin their heads forward to make a slow, seductive approach, they flare their tails and peak their ear feathers as their throats grow swollen with a booming vibrato song. A male will squeak, cackle, drum, and gobble, and his voice will rise in an excited “pike call” when he feels the time is ripe to woo a mate. His boom can travel a mile across the plains, sounding like approaching thunder. If a competitor interrupts, the birds break back into combat with stabbing beaks and swinging wings. When the feathers clear, the victor gets right back to dancing and singing.
It’s a ritual that might seem better suited to the rainforest, where the far more charitably named superb bird of paradise struts his stuff. Or maybe you’d expect such grandiose behavior from the more positively monikered bowerbird—who will adorn his tiny palace of sticks with colorful litter and show off his wing flicks when a potential mate comes to scope out his digs. But, unlike the Bowerbirds, you won’t find an Indie band calling themselves the Lesser Prairie Chickens, at least not without a heavy dose of irony. The hidden cost of such a misnomer is that those unacquainted with the lesser prairie chicken’s humble majesties find it easy to subject the bird to scorn or depict it as insignificant. After all, what’s one little chicken against the tide of economic progress?
Quite a lot, actually. For one, the lesser prairie chicken’s decline can teach us important lessons about the sensitivity and interdependence of ecosystems. The deliberate eradication of bison and prairie dogs, and the suppression of naturally occurring wildfires, allowed mesquite, redcedar, and other woody plants to pervade the shortgrass prairie, disrupting prairie chicken breeding and nesting grounds. Mess with even one player in an ecosystem, and watch the rest suffer. If the losses snowball? Well, the extinction of the lesser prairie chicken could serve as a tipping point for the collapse of an iconic American landscape. Such is the peril of eliminating species that have existed on the American prairie for tens of thousands of years.
The lesser prairie chicken also serves as a herald for the precarity of its prairie habitats. When climatic and habitat conditions are favorable for the lesser prairie chicken, livestock fares well. When things are rough for the prairie chicken, ranchers and farmers can expect a hard season. In other words, the herd does as the bird does.
Despite the prairie chicken’s clear role in supporting human endeavors, we’ve responded by decimating its habitat, chopping it up with cropland, livestock grazing areas, fences, oil and gas wells, powerlines (which provide a perch for birds of prey), buildings, and roads. We’ve diminished the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat by 85%, and as a result their population has declined by as much as 99% in some ecoregions. Of the remaining habitat patches, only around .1% are sufficiently unfragmented to sustain even a minimum population of lesser prairie chickens. A decade ago, an already diminished lesser prairie chicken population declined by half in a single year. The threats to the bird are myriad. Lesser prairie chickens succumb to fungus-based biotoxins that fester in waste grains and watch their eggs get thrashed by harvesting equipment or get roasted in their nests by soaring temperatures. Lesser prairie chickens are hardy and can typically satisfy their water needs on dew and sand sage, but in times of drought, which climate change is making more frequent and severe, they seek out larger water sources, where more predators lurk in wait.
Field studies have suggested that oil and gas development could completely eliminate lesser prairie chicken populations. This is because the birds don’t just avoid the roads built to access stations or the wellpads themselves, but flee the entire oil and gas field. The birds despise the wellfield noise and oil-well-wastewater.
Rather than support a bird whose diet is primarily comprised of insects that damage crops, and whose wellbeing is a bellwether for the health of an entire ecosystem, some still argue that we should give priority to the same fossil fuel interests we’ve propped up with tax and energy policies for a century—despite the enormous profits the industry already reaps and the enormous damage it inflicts. In one year, the 1,800 largest fossil fuel companies made $500 billion in profits, yet they still received direct subsidies totaling $700 billion. That astronomical number doesn’t even include the health and environmental costs of pollution that are passed on to the public. The estimates for subsidies can climb as high as $5 trillion per year when all the damages that will occur as a result of climate-related events are accounted for. Fossil fuel companies then use those subsidies to quash environmental protection efforts.
But it’s the environmental protection efforts that work and the subsidies that don’t. Ninety-nine percent of species granted Endangered Species Act protections have avoided extinction, and concerted conservation efforts have been successful at boosting the lesser prairie chicken population levels in recent years. In contrast, fossil fuel subsidies have forever failed to improve production or create jobs. They’re so ineffective that the costs, in terms of public health and production lost due to pollution, actually exceed the value of the subsidies.
Don’t be fooled by fearmongering—the only way to gain true energy independence is to ditch fossil fuels. Endangered Species Act protections are stiff, so the proposed listing of the lesser prairie chicken as endangered in its southern range and threatened in the northern grasslands could play a huge role in shutting off the wellspring of wasted money taxpayers gift to fossil fuel executives, a gratuity that comes at the expense of taxpayer’s own health and the wellbeing of their environments.
The lesser prairie chicken is anything but trifling or boring, and a grouse by any other name would sing as sweetly. It’s past time we stopped propping up industries that pollute our prairies and started supporting the animals that lend them song and color. For heaven is here where the prairie chicken lives.