"What if God wants the lesser prairie-chicken to go extinct?"

Eric Holst

A few years ago, I found myself at a local Texas radio station not far from Amarillo and in midst of declining habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken – a bird my colleagues and I were fighting to save.

A Texas farmer, David Cleavinger, had invited me to his farm nearby and - unbeknownst to me – arranged for me to go on air at KGNC-AM to talk about wildlife conservation. The particular focus of the show, I was told, was how efforts to revive the colorful lesser prairie-chicken would affect the local farming and energy production economy.

We got into a lively discussion with the radio host, James Hunt, and several listeners, until I was suddenly stymied by a surprising and provocative question from a caller toward the end of the show. ”What if God wants the lesser prairie-chicken to go extinct?” he wanted to know.

I was in a tricky spot, being asked to expound on God’s will for an endangered bird. The caller knew nothing about my faith.

While I’ve kept that faith relatively low-profile during my career as a conservationist, I realized then I might have an opportunity to outline my thoughts on why God and conservation actually go hand-in hand and – by extension – what role faith can play in science-based environmental work.

These are topics I’ve thought about quite a bit.

Some see dominion, I see “creation care”

My view on this question is rooted in Christian doctrine, which holds that “God created the heavens and the Earth” and that the Earth reflects the genius of the creator. His whole creation, and all its elements, are therefore worthy of preservation.

Much has been made in certain Christian circles of God’s charge in the Bible’s first book, Genesis, for humans to have “dominion” over the Earth.

But the sweep of teaching in the scriptures rather points toward an ethic that has been called “creation care.” It teaches that our choices as humans are driven by a strong obligation to tend to the Earth in ways similar to a gardener tending to his or her garden.

A stewardship ethic requires that we balance the freedom we have to exploit with an obligation to conserve. 

Land, water, air and other resources were provided humans to allow a rich life. But a stewardship ethic requires that we balance the freedom we have to exploit with an obligation to conserve resources for future generations and to avoid irreversible harm, including extinction.

As Christians, we’re also called to address the divide that sin brought between God and his creation. This divide breeches the relationship between God and humans, and between God and the Earth. Healing this breech, a process called redemption, is something to which each Christian should contribute.   

This is where the lesser prairie-chicken comes in.

One of the ways that I’ve chosen to contribute to the redemption of the Earth is to prevent extinction of the unique wildlife that God created and the habitats on which they depend – and to work with science-driven solutions to achieve success. This is ongoing work that demands constant attention.

This is not what God envisioned

Last month, federal courts upheld a Texas ruling that stripped the chicken of its previous federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision whether or not to list the bird has been a tumultuous and highly politicized, ongoing drama. 

That’s because this particular bird’s habitat is nestled smack in the middle of one of the highest oil and gas rich regions of the United States – the Permian Basin.

But which came first – the chicken or the oil rig? Would God rather we save jobs than birds?

It’s these this-or-that questions that keep us from achieving the harmony us humans were expected to create on Earth.

I believe we can strike a balance. Finding that equilibrium between thriving human communities and environmental stewardship makes my work incredibly challenging – and rewarding when we get it right.

So in my answer to that caller to the Texas radio station I’d say this: I do not think that God wants oil rigs to win out over the bird and the lesser prairie-chicken to go extinct. I think he wants us to get the balance just right.