By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
Several landowners said they left Thursday’s informational meeting about the Range-wide Conservation Plan for the lesser prairie chicken with more questions than answers.
The deadline is approaching for listing the rare grouse, native to New Mexico and four other states, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In conjunction with the deadline, meetings have been held around the state to inform landowners about insurance programs for farmers if the bird were to be listed.
A listing decision will come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal group which regulates the ESA. Opponents of a “threatened” listing say regulations from the listing could hinder operations for landowners as well as the oil and gas industry.
The Range-wide Conservation Plan provides incentives for farmers to sign up their land with the program, in which they would meet agreements to protect the bird while also carrying about their operation without regulation.
But Chaves County rancher Alma Lyle Bilberry said the information given in the meeting was vague.
“I think there was probably a lot of generalizations and not specifics,” Bilberry said.
The way the program would work, according to New Mexico Game and Fish Biologist Grant Beauprez, is that the energy industry would provide funding for the program, which would in turn be paid out to the farmers and also cover administration costs for the program.
Beauprez, a leading author of the plan, said those in the energy industry are incentivized to fund the program because they would, like landowners, be protected from criminal and civil penalties for “take. The term is defined by the USFWS as killing or harming the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat.
“The point of the program is to provide protection to landowners,” said Beauprez.
Even if the bird were not to be listed, the program assures efforts would take place to preserve the bird, which could prevent future petitions for listings.
“We’re hoping to preclude the need to list the species,” Beauprez said.
The voluntary program would pay farmers in the shinnery oak region of the lesser prairie chicken, which encompasses eastern New Mexico and west Texas, based on the quality of the land. The higher quality of habitat for the bird, the higher the payment a farmer would receive.
Beauprez said the idea is for farmers to improve their habitat, thus increasing the payment they can demand.
But Beauprez said the program relies on the cooperation energy industries, which he feels will come on board.
Walter Bradley of Dairy Farmers of America was one of the 30 people in attendance at Thursday’s meeting. He said he’s been communicating with members of the oil and gas industry and believes they’re just waiting to see if the bird is listed, but he feels they will come around.
“If it wasn’t for the work (New Mexico Game and Fish) has done, (the lesser prairie chicken) would be listed,” said Bradley, praising the program. “This program still allows you to work your land.”
But other landowners are tired of dealing with the lesser prairie chicken and stress the importance of their industries.
“We as ranchers and farmers are being put in a position of feeding and protecting a host of animals and birds that are not used for human consumption,” said Roosevelt County rancher Wayne Kinman, “instead of being able to raise cattle which are used to feed your family.”