Regulators endorse prairie chicken plan

Staff and wire report

Federal wildlife regulators endorsed Wednesday a voluntary conservation plan for the lesser prairie chicken drafted by five states where the rare grouse is found.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endorsement is an important step toward protecting the species and minimizing the economic impacts of any listing under the law.

“This is very good news for the many private citizens, companies and public land management agencies who have worked together for years to find a collaborative solution to protecting the lesser prairie chicken habitat,” said Udall in a press release. “New Mexico landowners and industry need certainty, and with the FWS endorsement today, we are nearing a positive final decision.”

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agency, which includes New Mexico and four other states, proposed a plan that calls for financial incentives for landowners who manage their property to benefit the species, which has been a candidate for federal protection for years and is now proposed for inclusion to be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The plan also provides a framework to mitigate the effects of development activity, such as oil and gas drilling, throughout the bird’s range.

The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a telephone news conference with reporters that it will consider the plan’s effectiveness when it makes a final decision in March 2014 on whether to give the lesser prairie chicken a threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

The lesser prairie chicken, a species of prairie grouse, was once abundant across its five range states in Great Plains. But its historical range of grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent as development converted its native habitat to other uses, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

“The prairie chicken’s decline tells us native grasslands in the Great Plains are in trouble,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “And by helping the lesser prairie chicken, we’ll also be working to restore the health of our native grasslands — which support many hundreds of other species but also support the local economies in the communities of that region of the country.”

Part of the plan is to use money collected from enrollments and impact fees to pay landowners who implement conservation practices.

The range-wide goal of the plan is a population of 67,000 birds as an annual spring average over a 10-year time frame, Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator said in an email. Its scientists felt that goal is both attainable and sustainable given that the population had been above this level as recently as 2006, he said.

When federal regulators first proposed in December 2012 to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act, there were fewer than 45,000 of them, Ashe said. A recent survey counted 18,000 across the bird’s range. Drought and loss of habitat are blamed for the decline.

The agency also plans to propose what it calls a “special rule” under the Endangered Species Act to provide another incentive to participate. In the event the bird is given federal protection as a threatened species, that rule would establish that any actions taken to implement this plan would comply with the Endangered Species Act.

States and their cooperating landowners under this plan will then have the “regulatory surety” that the things they are doing have coverage under the federal law, Ashe said.

U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce, R-N.M., agrees with the FWS in that the plan is a strong solution for the conservation of the bird.

“State governments, as well as local farmers, ranchers, and businesses have gone to great lengths to take initiative in the conservation of this species, and their efforts should be lauded,” Pearce said.

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