Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
Why Do Republicans Want to Kill This Tiny Dancing Chicken?
“You just got to follow the money”
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is a bird made to dance.
I mean, look at it.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken: Plains Performerwww.youtube.com
When spring rolls around, the male’s head plumes and bright orange eyebrows stand at attention. The air sacs on its neck inflate and deflate. It stomps its feet up to 17 times per second, leaps into the air with a cackle, runs a few yards to a different spot, and stomps again, all while trying to fend off other males doing the same thing in an attempt to woo as many females as possible.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken has been doing this dance for millennia. And congressional Republicans (plus Joe Manchin) are trying to kill it.
More precisely, House Republicans voted on Thursday to take the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and another animal, the Northern Long-Eared Bat, off the list of creatures protected under the Endangered Species Act. They’re following in the footsteps of the Senate, which voted 50-49 in May (guess which Democratic senator from West Virginia voted with the Republicans) that used the Congressional Review Act to overturn a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list both animals as endangered last year.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it’s the first time in the history of the 30-year-old Congressional Review Act that the law’s been used to target individual species. The White House has already announced that President Biden intends to veto the bill as soon as it reaches his desk, but it likely won’t be the last time Republicans try such a move.
As for why Congress is going after these animals? “You just got to follow the money,” said Jon Hayes, executive director of Audubon Southwest (disclaimer: I used to work at Audubon magazine, which is editorially independent from the Audubon Society). “This is very much a political act not driven by science but by the interest of the oil and gas industry and agricultural interests.”
Both animals have the unenviable position of living in places humans want to exploit. The Northern Long-Eared Bat, which lives in 37 states and has seen populations drop by 97% because of a disease called white-nose syndrome, roosts in trees that loggers would like to cut down. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken lives in the southern Great Plains region, in an area that spans across Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. They roam through ranches, along grazing areas, and past places that might make good farms, but the population that’s at the greatest risk lives right on the edge of the Permian Basin — also known as the most productive oil field in the world.
The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is one of the federal government’s most powerful land-management tools. Its purview extends across public and private land alike; if a listed species lives on your land, you are obligated to take steps to protect it. Ranchers and grazers, Hayes told me, can coexist pretty easily alongside the chickens even if they’re protected under the ESA. Oil and gas, by its very nature, cannot.
Historically, oil and gas plants have been winning against the birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) first listed the bird as threatened in 2014, but that decision was vacated by a lawsuit in 2015, clearing the way for more ranches and oil fields alike. Conservationists hoped that a raft of voluntary measures could save the bird, but prairie-chicken habitats continued to get squeezed out and their population dropped to somewhere around 30,000, down from a pre-colonial high in the millions. That’s what prompted FWS to list the bird again last year.
“I see it as kind of the pinnacle of human hubris that the quarterly earnings of a corporation should be of more concern to us than a species that's literally been on this earth for over 2 million years, that we could cause to go extinct within less than a century,” Hayes told me.
Congressional Republicans argue that the voluntary measures are good enough, and that listing the bird is an “unnecessary and burdensome regulation that threatens the livelihoods of people in rural America.” According to the Associated Press, Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas called the ESA “an important but outdated part of U.S. history.”
“The question is always like, what role do they serve?” Hayes said. “And I always push back against that. The role of the chicken is to make more chickens. That's all we should expect it to do.”
The chicken is also an indicator of the health of the Great Plains writ large. Losing the bird may not destroy the entire ecosystem, but it would be a sign that the ecosystem could be past the point of recovery, Hayes said. The area where the chicken lives was once the site of the Dust Bowl, and it sits on top of the vast Ogallala aquifer — which is already being quickly depleted. Protecting the chicken also protects that habitat, from the grasses that sequester carbon to the drinking water that millions of people depend on.
“I’m not going to say that if you take the lesser prairie-chicken off that landscape, everything collapses,” Hayes said. “But we're losing species one by one. And at some point, we have to wake up and say, okay, that's enough. We have got to save this system.
Ironically, protecting the chicken could also block clean energy development — the birds tend to avoid tall structures that could play host to predators, and to a prairie-chicken a wind turbine mast looks suspiciously similar to a tree trunk. And even though Biden’s veto should protect its habitat, the prairie-chicken is going to feel the impacts of oil and gas through climate change. Its population tends to go through booms and busts, and both drought and extreme rain could hit prairie-chicken habitats with such intensity that the population might not be able to recover.
“Honestly, probably the most realistic scenario is we maintain the status quo, and maybe that’s not enough and we lose the bird in a few decades anyway. But even if we resign ourselves to losing this bird, there are more birds that are waiting in the wings to be the next chicken,” Hayes told me. “It's time to get serious about thinking about these ecosystems as natural infrastructure, and investing in them the same way we do with our roads and bridges and highways. Whether it's our Great Plains, our forests, our coasts, or are rivers, they have a value that we need to recognize. They aren’t going to keep maintaining us forever.”