Conservation Plan Helps Texas Rancher Adapt


Clay Cooper signed the first Lesser Prairie-Chicken conservation plan in Texas, through the Natural Resources Conservation Service “Working Lands for Wildlife” partnership — an agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By participating in the grassland management program, he benefits from technical and monetary assistance from NRCS, and, should a bird be accidentally killed, he won’t be held liable for its loss. Awful drought in 2011-2012, plus a wildfire that destroyed 75-80 percent of his grass, caused Cooper to have to disperse a large part of his herd. He discusses both changes to his environment.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

In this series, we’re talking about ranching and range management since U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as a threatened species in March 2014. We’re learning how ranchers are conducting business under the new regulations.

“I guess people just get so upset when you start mentioning endangered species that sometimes I think they kind of lose their mind.”

That’s Texas rancher Clay Cooper. He’s near Higgins — that’s in Lipscomb County in the panhandle — smack-dab in Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat. He’s seen his ranch change in recent years owing to outside influences.

“We have about 11,000 acres here. It’s all native range, and we run cows and calves on that. We were running about 300+ cows. With the drought of 2011 and 2012, we had sold down to 225.”

Down to 225 head during that awful drought. And then if that wasn’t enough… “We got burned up in a wildfire this last March.” It burned 75 or 80 percent of his grass.

“We had to reduce our numbers for that because of the fences being burned out and the conditions that were there.”

Clay Cooper wanted to do what he could to support the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and its habitat. He signed the first conservation plan in the state, through the Natural Resources Conservation Service “Working Lands for Wildlife” partnership — an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cooper gains a stamp of approval exempting him from any incidental “take” of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, by implementing range conservation practices in an NRCS conservation plan. That means if a bird is accidentally killed, he won’t be held liable for its loss. He’s put his worries about the Lesser Prairie-Chicken to bed.

“I’ve just got layers of protection against accidental take, I guess is the first thing. And, really, with this predictability plan, it more fully describes that my operation is not in harm’s way with the prairie-chicken’s habitat. It’s actually positive to their habitat “

Cooper wants to do his part to help the bird.

“I just think the bird is worth protecting. By signing this predictability plan, by working with the NRCS, I’m protected. Not only that, I’ve got all this free help with how to operate and maximize my grasslands here. I just think we could all stand a second look from somebody else. The people that would help you and come out to your place to work a conservation plan… they are not from Washington D.C. Usually, it’s the person you already know down at the NRCS office, and it comes free of charge.

Those people, he says — the ones who get so upset about an endangered species they sorta loose their mind — he thinks they would be missing out, by not investigating how NRCS conservation programs can help them with their operation, while assisting the bird.

“Some people are really sceptical about the government, and I can understand, but I feel like if people sit out there and do nothing, and they’re a landowner and don’t sign some of these types of agreements, then they could be liable for take. So they are actually putting themselves into the position that they’re so fearful about where the government is going to come and do this or that. Well, they’re sitting there wide open and not taking any forward action.”

A parting thought, from Lipscomb County Texas rancher Clay Cooper: “I think the disappearance of this bird is telling us we’re not taking care of our range — and I think the range is important. Our business here is our native range, and I want to see rangelands protected.”

Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Original broadcast: November 2014

Posted: December 27, 2015
Topics: Landowner Stories, Lesser Prairie-Chicken