Neel Dhanesha on the Lesser Prairie Chicken and Other Dispatches

This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to environmental reporter Neel Dhanesha of Heatmap to learn about his new media startup, discuss the landmark climate case Held v. Montana and take a look at the lesser prairie chicken and why the plight of this dancing bird is no laughing matter.

Narrator (00:02): This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Neel Dhanesha (ND) (00:26): The argument is often the economic one. It’s sort of like why does this one species’ life matter when there’s so much potential money on the line?

Narrator (00:37): This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to environmental reporter Neel DHANESHA of Heatmap to learn about his new media startup, discuss the landmark climate case held versus Montana, and take a look at the Lesser Prairie Chicken and why the plight of this dancing bird is no laughing matter. I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Neel Dhanesha. He is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Neel, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Neel Dhanesha (ND) (01:28): Thanks for having me back.

Alex Wise (AW) (01:30): We had you on when you were a reporter for Vox and now you are at Heatmap. Tell our listeners a little bit more about this startup of yours.

Neel Dhanesha (ND) (01:39): Yeah, so Heatmap is the climate news startup. We basically sort of are operating under the idea that climate connects to every part of life, and we really want to help demystify the various ways that climate change affects our readers and how the energy transition will work and how readers can become part of that change

Alex Wise (AW) (02:05):And people can follow you and your colleagues at Heat Map News.

ND (02:10): That’s right.

AW (02:11): Let’s start at one of your recent pieces that you and your colleagues have been following this Held v. Montana case, which was a pretty interesting climate rights case and they won and that was very encouraging. Why don’t you take us back, though, to the genesis of this case before you get us up to speed on what it means moving forward.

ND (02:34): Yeah, so Held v. Montana, it’s a case that was brought by a group of youth plaintiffs who are represented by a nonprofit law organization called Children’s, sorry, by a nonprofit law firm called Our Children’s Trust. And what they did is they sued the state of Montana for violating the state of Montana because they said that the state had violated their state constitutionally mandated right to a healthy and safe environment. And this case is kind of unique because it leaned upon a constitutional vision in Montana State constitution, which guaranteed the citizens of Montana a right to a safe and healthful environment. And that gave them really interesting standing in a way that didn’t really exist in previous climate lawsuits. And so this was one of the first of its kind to go to trial in the way that it did. And a couple of weeks ago, the judge ruled in their favor.

AW (03:47): And how did these kids come together? What was the inspiration behind it and who organized this movement?

ND (03:56): So the inspiration behind it was essentially all these people had grown up in Montana and they’d seen how the landscape around them was changing and how their own access to natural resources was diminishing because of climate change and climate impacts. And I don’t entirely remember how they came together. I just know that 17, I believe youth plaintiffs came together. They joined forces with our Children’s Trust, which is this environmental legal nonprofit and brought this case to court.

AW (04:32): And is this a federal ruling and will it be appealed? Where do we see this case moving and what should the impact be if it holds?

ND (04:42): Right. So this was a case in Montana State Court, which means that it remains within the state’s legal system. And what they were doing is they were suing specifically over a piece of legislation that the Montana legislature had passed that essentially would make it so that climate impacts couldn’t be taken into account when permitting new energy projects. And so what they’re hoping to do is essentially have that legislation rolled back and to force the legislature to take action towards mitigating climate change. Now the legislature is not going to go down so easily. The state of Montana will very likely appeal this case to the Montana Supreme Court, and there the plaintiffs will have to make their case again and they might have a harder fight that time because again, it’s at the Montana Supreme Court as opposed to a district court and they had to convince a panel of justices as opposed to one judge. And so what happens next kind of depends on what happens with the potential appeal. And then in the state Supreme Court, this will not have an impact at the federal level because again, it’s within Montana Court. But there is another court case happening at the federal level, which is the case of Julianna v. U.S., which is also brought by our Children’s Trust. And in that case it’s a similar youth climate case where a few youth plaintiffs are trying to make the case that climate change is a violation of their right to life. They don don’t quite have the same protections as the youths in Montana do because there’s no American constitutional provision that guarantees the right to a safe and healthy environment. But they are trying to make the case that by not taking enough action on climate change, the government is denying their own right to a larger idea of the ability to live a good life. And so that case recently was allowed to go forward, so it’s going to wind its way through the court slowly and might eventually make it way to the Supreme Court.

AW (06:43): Yes, I mean observers of this right-leaning Supreme Court who’ve been watching how they’ve ruled on climate change might look at the Montana case as in a much more optimistic light because it seems like the right wing has often been laying out the case that you can’t legislate the climate. We don’t need regulation to do this. The market forces will be moving things and everything will be hunky dory if we just let big corporations decide how much pollution is the right amount of pollution. I’m being a little glib, but this is kind of the same logic that Montana’s using. It’s like we are putting in regulations that you can’t use climate change factors in policymaking. So by that same logic, you can see why the Montana kids might have a strong case.

ND (07:37): Yeah, exactly.

AW (07:38): I didn’t really lay that out very well, but you know what I mean, it’s easier to shoot something down and kind of get regulations out than to say what you’re talking about in the Julianna case where you’re trying to set forth something that may not have as much legal precedent in terms of clean air and clean water rights.

ND (07:56): Yes, exactly. I mean, the Montana case was unique because Montana’s constitution enshrined this right to a safe environment in the Constitution itself, and that gives those plaintiffs a very strong legal ground to stand on this case though it does definitely inspire a lot of people who are trying to do similar things in other states, there are other state level cases around climate change that are making their way through court. Actually, one was allowed to go forward in Hawaii the week before the wildfires hit Maui. And so I think that seeing a case like this win, even if it’ll go to appeal, seeing a case, seeing a case like held v Montana win at the level that it did provides a lot of inspiration for people and kind of gives people a playbook and also kind of tells people that there might be a way here to use the courts to enact climate action and that’s a big deal.

AW (08:52): So to wrap up this part of our discussion, let me read a little excerpt from your heat map piece. James May, an environmental law professor at Delaware Law School told me via email that the ruling suggests climate rights cases may be a powerful underutilized tool for climate activists to tap into and it could usher in a new wave of similar cases around the country and the world. It will also bolster the plaintiffs in cases that are already ongoing around the country in Hawaii, for example, where rescuers are still searching for survivors after the country’s deadliest wildfire event. In recent history, a youth-led climate lawsuit against the state’s Department of Transportation was allowed to go ahead just last week. While that case will operate under a very different backdrop to the case in Montana, the held decision still provides the plaintiff’s good reason for optimism. If the state does appeal the ruling and if the ruling is upheld, the plaintiffs will have secured a monumental win, May told me, but even then the work will only have just begun.

Music Break (10:00)

AW (11:0): This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Neel Dhanesha. He is a founding staff writer of Heat Map. So Neel, let’s turn our eyes and ears to the tale of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. This is a great piece that I really enjoyed on a heat map. It was entitled, “Why do Republicans Want to Kill this Tiny Dancing Chicken?” So first of all, what is the Lesser Prairie Chicken?

ND (11:40): Yeah, the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

AW (11:42): It’s not really like your average chicken is it?

ND (11:45): It is not. It looks pretty unique essentially. So it sort of looks like it’s a ground dwelling. Grouse, I think is more of a better way to say it has these really vivid orange eyebrows and it has head plumes that stick up over its head. And these a sack on its neck that inflate and deflate and it sort of scurries on the ground and

AW (12:15): It dances.

ND (12:16): Well, yes, during mating season it stomps its feet, I think something like 17 times per second and then jumps into the air, then it runs to another part of the prairie, and then it does the same thing and jumps into the air and that’s, its mating dance. And so it is one of a few prairie dwelling birds that have kind of found themselves at the center of big arguments around conservation. And a really famous example of this is the greater sage grass, which it is in a similar situation where it lives on these prairies that oil and gas developers would really like to exploit. And because they’re endangered, the Endangered Species Act means that prevents those developments from happening. Right now we’re seeing fights over potentially delisting these birds from the endangered species list, which would let the developers run rough shall over their habitats and essentially kill these chickens.

AW (13:28): And using the Endangered Species Act to remove these animals has become a bit of a cudgel that congressional Republicans are wielding it sounds like. Oh, well that’s great. They’re off the endangered species list. That means they’re not endangered anymore. But it’s not so simple, is it?

ND (13:44): It’s not as simple as that. No. It’s more that they’re being removed from the endangered species list, as in they are being stripped of the protections. Often the best case scenario for a species being removed from the endangered species list is that it’s no longer endangered. The worst case scenario is exactly this, which is when you see a political motivation for removing a species from the list. And that kind of gets caught up in a lot of these. It’s like one of many kind of inane fights that we see in Congress around these things where congressional republicans are trying to essentially do whatever they can to roll back environmental protections and the Prairie Chickens endangered listing is just one of those ways.

AW (14:30): Yes. And you may be a little too young to remember this, but I remember, I think it was the late eighties, early nineties, the Endangered Species Act was a big water cooler discussion because the northern spotted owl became kind of this lightning rod for conservation as an idea. The Republican talking point at the time was, there are jobs that are going to be lost to these laggers because we’re going to be protecting this one owl, this one bird. I believe that American families should come first before a spotted owl. This was kind of the polemic that we were seeing from the right, and it really hasn’t faded 40 years later.

ND (15:13): Right? Yeah, I mean the argument is often the economic one. It’s sort of like why does this one species’ life matter when there’s so much potential money on the line? And I talked to a few folks about this and one of them, John Hayes, who’s the executive director of Audubon Southwest, he was essentially like, that is such a misguided argument because what we’re arguing is sort of the fate of a species that has been on this planet for millennia potentially being wiped out in the pursuit of economic interest. I think it’s just sort of one more notch in a line of hubristic decisions that we have taken. And I think if you look at climate change, a lot of the issues that we’re seeing today are also came out because of a similar economic argument. We have these things happening because we pursued fossil fuel development because of the economic outcomes that were promised and we didn’t really pay any attention to the environmental fallout. And essentially the argument that Hayes made to me is that if you do the same thing with these species, we stand to lose these ecosystems. We just can’t get it back and they’ll just be in the name of short-term profit. Really.

Music Break (17:03):

AW (18:13): This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Neel Dhanesha, he is a founding staff writer of Heat Map. The ecosystem is really the key here. The argument against a spotted owl or removing the lesser prairie chicken from an endangered species act. It’s a mendacious red herring way to approach what is really an economic argument that these people are making. They’re toeing the water for the fossil fuel industry, the logging industry, whatever industry is backing their economic interests. And we’re not just talking about one species. There’s an ecosystem. These are all domino effects. You can’t just remove one species from an ecosystem and expect nothing else to be affected.

ND (19:03): Yeah, exactly. I mean there are knock on effects, but also it is worth saying that the Endangered Species Act would, by protecting this bird, also mandates the protection of the ecosystem that lives in. And so essentially what they’re doing is by removing this bird from that protection, they’re removing the protection for the ecosystem as a whole. And that just means that the door would then open to all kinds of environmental destruction of these areas that just could never be rolled back. And there are so many other species in these regions that will be negatively affected by these moves. And they might end up on the E es a themselves one day and then their protections might be rolled back and so on and so forth. But we would see a, a domino effect of removing the protections from this one species.

AW (19:57): And it seems like both sides are kind of arguing about a slippery slope on the right. They’re saying it’s a slippery slope if we have to change the way we dam an area, or if we are not going to be drilling because of one species, then the greenies, the enviros are always going to come up with another species that is endangered from that. And it’s a slippery slope in terms of where the next economic pursuit is going to be and where it’s going to encroach on other creatures and ecosystems.

ND (20:33): Yeah, that’s exactly.

AW (20:34): Right. So now that we’ve kind of given the history of the weaponization of the Endangered Species Act, why don’t you dive into the politics of it right now, how somebody like a Joe Manchin is involved with the lesser prairie chickens fight, getting a little bit more into the politics of it, if you can, on where we are and why it matters and how the fight may or may not unfold moving forward.

ND (21:01): Yeah, so I mean with the specific bird in July, house Republicans voted to take the Lesser Prairie Chicken and also another animal, the Northern long-eared bat off the list of endangered species that were protected under the s a. And that follows a vote in the Senate in May, which was 50 to 49. And Joe Manchin was the tipping point in that vote, which voted to remove these protections from the chicken. And what that would do, what these two votes would do is they would use the Congressional Review Act to overturn a fish and wildlife service decision to list these animals as endangered. The president has already made clear that he fully intends to veto these moves, and so the chicken will be protected. It’s more, this just seems like one more notch in the belt of the various ways that Republicans are trying to go after Biden’s environmental agenda generally.

AW (22:07): And it’s a bit of a bellwether to see where that key swing votes of Kirsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are waving in the wind.

ND (22:16): Yeah, I mean, this is also sort of in line with Joe Manchin’s moves generally. He has often voted in line with Senate Republicans when it comes to environmental measures, although he definitely surprised us last year when he voted for the IRA. And so this is just, it really highlights the tensions within the Democratic party, I guess specifically around Joe Manchin and trying to get him to sign on to these retinal measures.

Music Break (23:56):

AW (24:24): This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to environmental reporter Neel Dhanesha. So Neel, we often hear about birds being killed by wind turbines. Does the lessening of these endangered species protections imperil some clean energy projects?

ND (24:44): Yeah, actually, this was a really interesting thing that I found in my reporting is that, so the lesser prairie chicken lives on the Great plains, and that’s a great space to build wind energy, for example. But wind energy turbines, actually, these chickens look very similar to the tall trees that their predators of sten. And so actually these protections would also block the development of wind energy and this area. And so now the wind industry so far has not said anything about the listing. They haven’t had any opposition to it. So it seems that’s not really a thing to be worried about. But I did find it really fascinating that there’s a potential here for the listing of the species to not only block oil and gas development, but also the development of clean energy projects.

AW (25:40): I remember during the Trump administration, that was one of the talking points that Donald Trump liked to throw out there. He was very anti wind energy, I think going back to his golf courses being blocked over, I can’t remember exactly, but in Scotland, but he just hates wind energy because of that. And there have been some cases about birds being endangered or bird habitat being encroached by wind turbines. I think the numbers have been inflated quite a bit, but it shows that delicate balance between all the different energy pursuits, clean and fossil fuel that are trying to make sure that humans get to turn on their lights and keep their TVs on while there’s ecosystems to be vigilant about at the same time.

ND (26:33): Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, energy projects, whether they’re fossil fuel or clean energy, require space and places to put them, and so do animals ecosystems. And that’s the constant tension I think of that’s kind of at the heart of a lot of environmental arguments that we see.

AW (26:51): So what are you working on next, and what should people be tuning to Heat Map for in the months ahead, Neel?

ND (26:59): Yeah, we’ve had a lot of coverage recently of the wildfires and the hurricanes that have been hitting the country. I think this has sort of been a summer of one disaster after the next, and we’re really trying to contextualize what that all means and how people can sort of prepare for those things to hit them themselves. But we’re also looking ahead to try and see more broadly how climate change affects people’s lives. And so I think we have a lot of really interesting stories in the works, and I think that if people are interested, they can come find us at HeatMap.News. It’s a subscription site, but we’re currently actually doing your first month free, so you can come check it out, read as much as you like for zero dollars and zero cents, and then subscribe if you like it.

AW (27:54): He’s a founding staff writer at Heatmap, Neel Dhanesha. Neel, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

ND (28:00): Thanks so much for having me, Alex.

Narrator (28:16): You’ve been listening to See Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Budos Band, Bing Ji Ling, Paul Simon, and Radiohead. To read a transcript of this show, go to see change stream, or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others, and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability for Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.