By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
Curry County Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s judgment to extend its decision on whether to federally protect the lesser prairie chicken will play into the favor of local landowners.
The USFWS was slated to make its decision on whether to list the grouse as threatened in September, but at the request of congressmen representing the states in which the bird populates, the USFWS said Wednesday it will extend its decision another six months to March 2014.
“There’s been a big push by the congressional delegation to make sure that they have all the input and information from people like us,” Bostwick said.
Bostwick says the additional time will allow more landowners to sign up for conservation agreements that would show the USFWS that there are efforts on the state level by locals to protect the bird.
The chicken, native to New Mexico and four other states, and known for its rare mating dance, has been at the center of controversy since 1998 after it was identified as a candidate for federal listing by the USFWS, a federal agency tasked with wildlife preservation.
Opponents of the listing say it can hinder a thriving oil and gas industry with a slew of regulations created to protect the bird while landowners fear their property rights are at stake.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., led a bipartisan call for the delay of the final decision to give the USFWS an opportunity to study the science and the comments it has received, while enabling landowners and the oil and gas industry to work on the protection of the species, according to a press release from Udall’s office.
A five-state range-wide plan has been created by agencies in the states the bird’s listing affects. The plan shows how conservation efforts from landowners and is currently being reviewed by the USFWS.
Udall’s hope is that landowners will provide enough evidence of protection to make the listing unnecessary.
“I am pleased with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s quick response to our request to delay the decision regarding a listing for the lesser prairie chicken,” Udall said. “Any final determination must be made according to the best science available, so I am glad to see Director (Dan) Ashe’s commitment to reviewing the five-state plan that local leaders have worked so hard to craft, and that any decision will indeed reflect the comments and information submitted to the service.”
Bostwick says a meeting is set with the USFWS is set for July 11. He says this will give an opportunity for the county governing bodies of Roosevelt and Curry counties to show their scientific data, which he says will show the lesser prairie chicken population has increased within the last five years due to conservation efforts from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Landowner and farmer Sharon Davis of Portales says she hopes the other states affected by the listing will strengthen their conservation efforts with the extended time.
“New Mexico has already got a good plan going and hopefully (USFWS) will realize it doesn’t need to be listed as threatened,” Davis said.
But Davis feels the obvious is being ignored and that the drought is the reason why the bird is at risk.
“Prairie chicken numbers come and go. There’s no way the state can make it rain, just like everybody else, they need rain to survive,” Davis said.