Conservation banker looks to save prairie chicken

Conservation banker Wayne Walker is on a mission to preserve lesser prairie chicken habitat.

Walker, the principal of Common Ground Capital LLC, said in this case, instead of trying to develop land they are trying to conserve or restore habitat. His group finds ranchers that have lesser prairie chickens. Common Ground is a small company and what they do is “very nichey.”

“But we do other species, too. We spend a bunch of money to figure out the birds are there and what we can do to improve their habitat and we get the the land approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service. We sell the mitigation credits to energy industry folks who are trying to offset their impacts,” Walker said.

Through the years, the lesser prairie chicken has been on and off the endangered species list. It is currently on the list, Walker said.

“The primary reason we think the prairie chicken and the dune sagebrush lizard and all these critters are in trouble is the ranchers can’t get paid enough money to really do things that that help them in a long term, meaningful way. A lot of the government programs will give him a few dollars an acre to remove some mesquite trees, but then mesquite trees just come back; or you’ve got … energy development out there (that) pays a lot better than conservation programs. …,” Walker said.

He added that you have to propose a proposition with good value that recognizes that ranchers are good stewards and may need more money to improve the habitat.

“… That’s what we do. We partner with private dollars and invest private to work with the ranchers,” Walker said.

And what is the credit do for you know, when they earn these? What do they call mitigation, mitigation, credit mitigation, credits, mitigation credit, so it helps it helps companies pay for

For someone drilling a well, Common Ground will calculate how many conservation credits are needed.

“It’s probably going to be several 100 credits because it’s not just the physical pad. The vertical structure creates an avoidance zone for prairie chickens. Let’s say the well needs 100 credits. You typically mitigate two to one, so if he needs 100 credits, he buys 200 from us; he gets legal protection; and that investment goes to part of a larger area we’re trying to serve, to ultimately build a conservation bank out to what they call a stronghold …,” Walker said.

It also includes things like reintroducing prescribed fire in a landscape, taking care of weeds and invasive species, monitoring the prairie chicken and habitat every year, writing annual reports, which are required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service every year.

”That’s what the endowment does. The rest of it is, effectively, we recover our development costs. We split the rest with the landowner so that’s where the money goes,” Walker said.

The money typically helps keep ranch in the family and it gets reinvested in paying off debt, buying equipment or expanding the ranch, he said.

What made him focus on lesser prairie chickens is he spent summers and winter breaks south of Ozona.

“My grandmother was a real big wildlife enthusiast and really got me to appreciate nature and why we need nature. It’s not just because it’s cool animals to look at. We all breathe air and need clean water from nature. That was one thing. The other thing is that was a wind developer for many years out of Houston, but I covered the Texas Panhandle, West Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, which just happens to be where the prairie chicken was. This is going back almost 25 years,” Walker said.

“I learned a lot about the prairie chicken. I wasn’t trying to learn about I just kept running into it,” he added.

Wind developers, for example, made conservation effort with Nature Conservancy but the situation was uncertain. Walker started to learn about conservation banking.

“I saw the future back in the late 2000s,” Walker said.

They knew about the Permian Basin and the Mississippi Lime Play in Kansas and Western Oklahoma, plus transmission was exploding. Solar wasn’t exploding, he said, but it is now.

“All of this is in these very remote areas, which are the last of the last great places for the prairie chicken,” Walker said.

Essentially, he said, he works with landowners in places where there are prairie chickens, or they can restore habitat for prairie chickens.

“We get these ranches approved by the feds, the Fish and Wildlife Service. They approve the ranches and they say okay, you can sell conservation credits. That’s how that’s why I call it conservation banking, because we’re getting the credits approved in advance of needing to sell them and we bank those credits; they’re ready to sell. Then I go out and I find, mostly right now it’s renewables folks, who are using solar wind transmission, local co-ops, who are building in prairie chicken habitat, and they need to offset those impacts. We determine how many credits they need. They enroll in our habitat conservation plan. They get a permit to build their project and they’re in compliance with the law. They’re also getting really good value for the dollar … doing something actually helps separate chicken,” Walker said.

”I believe the way we get out of this is we got to actually grow back prairie chicken habitat. Because right now we’re a deficit. That will allow us to grow prairie chickens and once we’ve increased prairie chickens, we can get away from this whipsaw listed not listed, down the road in the Midland courthouse stuff,” he added.

In West Texas-Eastern New Mexico there were around 500 lesser prairie chickens as of 2021. But it ranges all the way up to 3,000, which Walker said still isn’t good.

“ It’s bad. We could we have another extended drought or some sort of wildlife disease. They could be gone a few years,” Walker said.

He added that the prairie chicken plays a vital role as an indicator of ecosystem health because it needs wide open, native, intact grasslands.

“We don’t have any of those left, so our overall prairie ecology here is unfortunately not not healthy and you lose the prairie chicken, it’s just another sign that we’re on a steep decline of grassland ecosystems,” Walker said.