04/09/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Protecting the Prairie-Chicken Protects the West -- We Must Do It Right

Last year, the population of a unique and imperiled species of western grassland grouse known as the lesser prairie-chicken plummeted to half of its already paltry numbers. Let's be honest -- a 50 percent decline for an already imperiled species should lead to federal protection. Last week, over fifteen years after it first determined the species needed that protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) finally listed the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). So whether or not the grouse deserves to be listed isn't really the issue. The question is: What does listing mean for our collective vision of the American West?

The ESA is a flexible law, so this isn't a choice between conserving the bird or conserving the economy. Preserving the beautiful, open spaces that define its dwindling range throughout parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Kansas does not mean putting the livelihoods of our state and region's residents at risk. In fact, by protecting this imperiled grouse, we simultaneously preserve a landscape that is critical to sustaining a range of conservation and economic values, including wildlife habitat, recreation and tourism, as well as agriculture and ranching.

Unfortunately, this threatened listing takes advantage of the ESA's flexibility in a negative way. The listing is so weakened by loopholes and overly broad exemptions for land uses and development that the future of the prairie-chicken remains bleak. According to the Service's news release, the special rule included in the listing "will allow the five range states to...avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance..." These exemptions waive key ESA protections for the lesser prairie-chicken based upon voluntary conservation plans that contain inadequate conservation measures and allow for minimal oversight and accountability.

It would be great if we could rely on voluntary conservation plans to preserve our natural heritage for future generations, but we can't do that if those plans do not actually conserve the species. If we don't want to see the prairie-chicken go extinct -- and lose its prairie habitat -- we need to use all of the tools available to us to protect it. In this case protections should include both the ESA and honest, adequate conservation plans.

While the lesser prairie-chicken should have been granted protection under the ESA years ago, we must also remember that designating federal protection for threatened and endangered flora and fauna is not just about imperiled species. It is about our future, our landscapes and the preservation of our natural heritage. Where the prairie-chicken is concerned, we are talking about expansive, iconic, historic Southwestern vistas, and the best interests of the region's land, people and wildlife.