Lesser Prairie Chicken count scrutinized

Local land owners and wildlife officials are saying the results of a recent aerial study done on the lesser prairie chicken may not be entirely accurate where New Mexico is concerned.

Four state and federal wildlife agencies performed a range-wide population count for the prairie chicken in the five states it inhabits: New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

According to the survey, the numbers for the bird are low but not as low as once thought. It means the bird may not be at endangered status, but its habitat should be closely watched.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Grower's Association, expressed relief at the results.

File photo

A recent aerial survey of the five-state range of lesser prairie chicken population showed the chicken not at endangered numbers, but a decision is still undetermined and the chicken may still be placed on the list, according to local land owners and wildlife officials.

"An endangered species (designation) doesn't mean the species is going to be any better protected," Cowan said. "It's just going to hinder land development, so anytime we can work together to ensure that a species doesn't have to go on the list is good.

"With the species not being listed and there not being critical habitat designated (meaning habitat can be altered), it provides the opportunity for landowners to work with wildlife managers to create the best habitat."

Local land owners and wildlife specialists say they are working together in New Mexico in every way they can to ensure the safety of he prairie chicken.

"The potential listing of the lesser prairie chicken is a very emotional subject," said Patricia McDaniel, short-grass prairie program director for The Nature Conservancy. "Fear can cause polarization and that is something all of us wish to avoid. "

Local land owners and managers agreed with McDaniel.

"The reason it's (the prairie chicken) in dire straights right now has as much to do with the drought as much as anything, but that's one of those natural things no human being can do anything about," said Willard Heck, manager of Weaver Ranch, 45 miles south of Portales.

"This drought is a dramatic impact on a lot of factors, more than people realize," Heck said. "In this area, land owners have done a lot to help the prairie chicken habitat. A lot of us feel like if it's listed, it's going to infringe on those things that we've done."

Heck said the plus side to the possibility of the chicken going on the endangered species list is the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). The pact allows land owners to enroll with assurances the government will have no additional land restrictions if they are already doing everything necessary to protect the prairie chicken's habitat.

Heck said the problem with the aerial study is it determines population and conditions for the prairie chicken for the entire range of the animal when conditions in each state are different.

"The problem with that is when you throw all the eggs into one basket, it's harder to do all the things here that we've been doing (to help the chicken)," Heck said. "It's one of those things where the law is well meaning, but it's not going to be suitable to everything."

The department of game and wildlife will also be looking at factors from all five states to determine the bird's level of endangerment.

Local New Mexico Game and Fish Biologist Grant Breauprez and local land owner Jim Weaver said the results of the aerial study will impact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision of whether to place the prairie chicken on the endangered species list but so will many other studies, research and factors.

"It's kind of complicated, to put it mildly," Weaver said. "A certain time-line has to be followed to determine if a species is put on the endangered species and a number of factors have to be looked at, such as disease in the animal. They have to look at every possibility of this bird having conditions that make it need to be listed.

"We've (local land owners) provided a lot of documented information over the last year, such as habitat information. All those things will be considered at the right time and place and that's probably the hold up right there is that there is so much research to look at."

Beauprez said a preliminary decision by the department is expected by the end of November. The final decision is still another year away, he said.

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