Regulators sound alarm as prairie chicken numbers plunge

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, July 1, 2016

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE

 

A coalition of state wildlife regulators today announced that the population of lesser prairie chickens in the wild has fallen by more than 13 percent since the last annual aerial survey — a troubling outcome the Obama administration predicted earlier this year.

There is now an estimated breeding population of 25,261 birds, down from 29,162 at the same point last year, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA (Greenwire, June 26, 2015).

The decline ends a two-year streak of population increases and comes after the Obama administration lost a pair of legal challenges that sought to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections for the bird, which today survives on just 12 percent of its historical range.

Found in four eco-regions across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, prairie chickens have been harmed by development and a 2012 drought that reduced their population from around 34,000 birds to just over 17,600.

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Former FWS official held $375K side job with state group

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, June 8, 2016

 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

A top Fish and Wildlife Service official appears to have violated federal law by working a side job as treasurer of a state wildlife regulators group that works closely with the agency, according to the Interior Department watchdog.

Stephen Barton, the service’s former chief of administration and information management for wildlife and sport fish restoration, repeatedly failed to disclose that the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) paid him more than $375,000 over seven years for his services — another potentially criminal act, the Office of Inspector General said in a report released yesterday.

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Investigative Report of Failure to Disclose Employment at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published: June 7, 2016

“In March 2014, this office gained information from a DOI-OIG investigation that Stephen M. Barton, Chief, Administration and Information Management, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR), served as treasurer for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) from around 2004 to early 2014, while also serving as a FWS employee between September 2007 to the present. The same investigation revealed that FWS had awarded WAFWA around $3 million in grants and cooperative agreements…” Read the Official Report Here

 

Obama admin drops bid to restore prairie chicken protections

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, May 12, 2016

 

The Obama administration this week gave up its legal push to reinstate protections for the lesser prairie chicken, a move that was celebrated by conservative lawmakers and lamented by environmentalists.

The Department of Justice filed a motion Tuesday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the administration’s challenge of a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Judge Robert Junell’s decision last year overturned a regulation issued in spring 2014 by the Fish and Wildlife Service that added the imperiled member of the grouse family to the threatened species list in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The case against the listing was brought by the Texas Permian Basin Petroleum Association and three oil-rich New Mexico counties.

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Lesser prairie-chicken numbers are up. Is it good conservation or just good weather?

By ERIC HOLST
Published: APRIL 12, 2016

LINK

 

Recent media reports have touted population rebounds for the lesser prairie-chicken – up 25 percent from last year. That’s great news for the bird, which was nearly wiped out in recent years as booming oil and gas industries encroached on the bird’s range across Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as “threatened” in March 2015, at the same time that the five states embarked on a conservation plan of their own. The plan was officially assembled and endorsed by the five members of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA).

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State effort struggles to buy prairie chicken habitat

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, April 1, 2016

 

A state-led effort to offset the impacts of development on the lesser prairie chicken continues to struggle with purchasing permanent conservation areas for the bird, according to an annual report released yesterday by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

In its second year implementing a rangewide plan that seeks to conserve the lesser prairie chicken with voluntary cooperation of landowners and industry, WAFWA secured its first permanent conservation site.

These strongholds of 25,000 to 50,000 acres of permanently conserved land are needed to “support viable [lesser prairie chicken] populations,” the rangewide plan said. The 2013 document set a goal of establishing “one or more strongholds” in each of the four eco-regions in which the bird is found and offsetting 25 percent of the acreage affected by development with permanent conservation.

But WAFWA reported yesterday that it has permanently conserved a 1,604-acre track of Texas native rangeland, which represents 10 percent of the habitat used for oil and gas development, wind turbines or other developments.

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$2B in private investment, new Interior center chief announced

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, March 7, 2016

Nearly a dozen private-sector groups at a White House roundtable today announced more than $2 billion worth of investments to protect land, water and wildlife.

The Interior Department also named the first leader of its new Natural Resource Investment Center (NRIC), an organization created to promote habitat conservation, water conservation and water infrastructure. As executive director, Jeffrey Klein — who spent decades on Wall Street before moving to a nonprofit — will work to secure additional conservation commitments from the private sector.

The biggest commitments were made by NatureVest, Resource Environmental Solutions and Ecosystem Investment Partners.

NatureVest, an investment unit of the environmental group the Nature Conservancy, announced 10 investments totaling over $400 million across four continents. Additionally, the group is set to launch a water fund of just over $19 million in the Murray-Darling Basin of Australia that seeks to balance environmental and agricultural interests.

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States fire head of crucial prairie chicken program

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2016

 

Even as a federal district judge yesterday rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service’s request to reinstate federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken, state wildlife regulators fired the man in charge of the plan the judge had instead favored to recover the imperiled bird.

Until yesterday, Cal Baca was the lesser prairie chicken program manager at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a coalition of regulators from 23 states and Canadian provinces that created a rangewide plan meant to prevent the need to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

After FWS added the prairie chicken to the threatened species list in 2014, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and a handful of oil-rich New Mexico counties challenged the decision. They argued that FWS should have given the states’ rangewide plan more time to work before listing the species.

Last year, Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas agreed with the challenge led by the oil trade group, vacating the agency’s listing decision. Then yesterday, he rejected a request by FWS to reinstate federal protections for the bird (E&ENews PM, Feb. 29).

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How Markets Can Restore Louisiana’s Marshes

Quin Hillyer, Wall Street Journal
Published: Dec. 25, 2015

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Feds blast ‘unsuccessful’ plan to save prairie chicken

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

 

A states-led plan to save the lesser prairie chicken’s vanishing strutting grounds “simply has been unsuccessful” at safeguarding the bird’s most important habitat, Justice Department attorneys told a federal district court in Midland, Texas, last week.

It was the federal government’s latest — and most aggressive — plea yet for Judge Robert Junell to reconsider his September decision to vacate Endangered Species Act protections for the bird across its 40-million-acre homeland in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.

At issue is Junell’s decision to toss the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in 2014 to list the prairie chicken as threatened as drilling, wind farms, road building, grazing and plowing had destroyed 84 percent of its habitat (Greenwire, Sept. 3).

Junell ruled that FWS had failed to consider the extent to which a rangewide conservation plan crafted and administered by state wildlife agencies and supported by energy companies and landowners would ameliorate those threats.

Federal attorneys are now asking Junell to amend his ruling. Instead of vacating it, they want it remanded so Fish and Wildlife can make a new listing determination. In the absence of a listing, they have warned, energy companies and farmers are destroying the chicken’s habitat with impunity.

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Prairie chicken ruling tests strength of voluntary conservation

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, October 15, 2015

 

Will energy companies continue to protect habitat for a prairie grouse in the absence of government regulations?

That question is being put to the test after a federal district judge in West Texas last month decided to strip Endangered Species Act protections from the lesser prairie chicken in five southern Great Plains states.

If oil and gas, pipeline, wind, and transmission companies continue shelling out millions of dollars to offset harm to the chicken — though they are under no legal obligation to do so — it would prove, to many stakeholders, the merits of voluntary conservation plans that have been a key plank in the Obama administration’s wildlife policy.

But reneging on commitments made while the chicken was listed or on the road to a listing would embolden environmentalists who say locally led, voluntary conservation plans only work when the regulatory hammer of ESA remains on the table.

Companies have so far stayed the course, according to state and nonprofit wildlife officials.

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Prairie chicken ruling casts doubt on FWS listing policy

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, September 3, 2015

 

A judge’s decision Tuesday to strip federal protections from a prairie grouse that roams the southern Great Plains has thrown into question how the government considers voluntary conservation measures when issuing listing decisions under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision could influence how the Fish and Wildlife Service considers voluntary conservation programs in other high-profile listing decisions, such as the greater sage grouse.

The ruling by Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas overturned the agency’s decision in spring 2014 to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, where the bird’s native grassland and prairie habitat had shrunk by 84 percent (E&ENews PM, March 27, 2014).

Legal experts said it’s quite rare for a federal court to overturn a FWS listing decision.

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Judge tosses FWS listing of lesser prairie chicken

Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, September 2, 2015

 

A federal judge threw out yesterday the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The March 2014 listing — the result of more than a decade of efforts by conservationists — was sharply criticized by agriculture and industry interests because the prairie chicken’s habitat spans farmland in five southern Great Plains states and includes the oil-rich Permian Basin (E&ENews PM, March 27, 2014).

Four New Mexico counties and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association challenged the listing in court, and yesterday Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas sided with their arguments.

Junell held that FWS failed to follow its own regulations for considering ongoing conservation efforts for a species before listing it.

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Prairie chicken numbers jumped 25% over past year

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, June 26, 2015

 

The population of a federally threatened grouse in the southern Great Plains grew by about 25 percent over the past year, marking the second consecutive year of significant growth, according to the preliminary results of a helicopter survey.

The lesser prairie chicken now numbers about 29,000 birds total, said Bill Van Pelt, grasslands coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which commissioned the survey.

The prairie chicken, known for its elaborate mating ritual, has risen from 18,747 birds in 2013 and 22,415 in 2014, according to WAFWA.

But numbers are still short of the estimated 34,000 birds counted in 2012 before a severe drought cut their population roughly in half.

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FWS allows drilling despite lack of prairie chicken habitat protections

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, April 7, 2015

 

The Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to allow continued oil and gas drilling in areas of the southern Great Plains inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken, despite state wildlife officials’ failure to obtain required permanent conservation areas for the threatened species.

In a letter obtained by the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, FWS Director Dan Ashe on March 31 signed off on a request by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) to effectively delay for two years a requirement that at least 25 percent of the mitigation land that the group secures to offset the impact of drilling be permanently conserved. Those long-term offsets protect larger areas and are more difficult to obtain from ranchers, farmers and other landowners.

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Birds and bankers at risk in potential prairie chicken conservation delay

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, March 27, 2015

When Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe visited Congress last week to justify his agency’s budget request, he repeatedly pointed to the importance of supporting innovative efforts to conserve imperiled animals.”In the Great Plains, we have a ground-breaking partnership with five range states that allowed us to list a species, the lesser prairie chicken, but to do that in a way that defers to the management of those five range states,” the FWS director told a House Appropriations subcommittee (E&E Daily, March 18).

“Is that worth an additional investment in our field capacity, to make those kind of partnerships happen and to ensure that they’re successful? I think that it is,” Ashe declared.

But environmental organizations and conservation investment groups aren’t so sure. They are warning that state wildlife managers are going to miss a key conservation deadline that was established when the lesser prairie chicken was added to the list of threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) a year ago (E&ENews PM, March 27).

The failure to meet the Sunday, March 30, deadline established in that listing could immediately put the partnership, the species and millions of dollars at risk, according to the environmentalists and investors. It could also, they say, limit the potential for FWS to apply the conservation model it pioneered with the lesser prairie chicken to recovering the greater sage grouse and other animals under threat.

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Frequently Asked Questions: Lesser Prairie-Chicken Programmatic Conservation Bank Agreement

Repost from USFWS, March 24, 2015:

Q. What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) taking?

A. The Service has finalized a Programmatic Conservation Bank Agreement submitted by LPC Conservation LLC (Wayne Walker, Common Ground Capital) for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The Service began working with LPC Conservation LLC, the Master Bank Sponsor for the Lesser Prairie- Chicken Programmatic Conservation Bank Agreement (LPC PCBA), in November 2013. This is the first Programmatic Conservation Bank to be approved by the Service.

The LPC PCBA will streamline the process of approval for individual bank parcels that serve to permanently conserve and manage lands for the benefit of the lesser prairie-chicken across the species range. The LPC PCBA is the umbrella that individual parcels will be approved under and that will provide available credits for purchase to developers that are impacting the lesser prairie-chicken or its habitat within the identified service areas. Landowners who voluntarily choose to conserve their lands in permanent conservation, through a conservation easement, will generate credits used to offset impacts elsewhere in the banks identified service area.

The Service is also announcing the inclusion of the first two parcels in the Programmatic Conservation Bank Agreement. The two parcels total approximately 29,082 acres and are located in Kansas, which is currently the state with the largest lesser prairie-chicken population.

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Service Approves Lesser Prairie-Chicken Programmatic Conservation Bank

News Release from USFWS, March 24, 2015:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved LPC Conservation LLC (Wayne Walker, Common Ground Capital)’s Programmatic Conservation Bank for the lesser prairie-chicken. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Programmatic Conservation Bank Agreement (LPC PCBA) is the first of its kind and will assist in the recovery of the lesser prairie-chicken while providing benefits to landowners who are interested in conserving their lands and to those undertaking projects that may impact the species. The first two LPC PCBA approved parcels, totaling approximately 29,082 acres, are located in Kansas, which is currently the state with the largest lesser prairie-chicken population.

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Service Approves Industry Conservation Plan for the American Burying Beetle

Service Approves Industry Conservation Plan for the American Burying Beetle
Plan Provides Industry with Streamlined ESA Permitting Process For Oklahoma Projects

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) approved a plan to streamline the Endangered Species Act (ESA) permitting process for oil and gas activities that may result in take of the American burying beetle (ABB) in Oklahoma. The approved Industry Conservation Plan (ICP) provides industry with a mechanism to move forward with oil and gas projects in ABB habitat during the 2014 and 2015 ABB active season.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lists Lesser Prairie-Chicken as Threatened Species

and Finalizes Special Rule Endorsing Landmark State Conservation Plan

Special Rule Establishes Unprecedented Conservation Partnership with States to Provide Regulatory Certainty for Landowners and Businesses; Enables States to Maintain Lead Management for Conservation Efforts

In response to the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie-chicken, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced the final listing of the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as a final special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that will limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing. Under the law, a “threatened” listing means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future; it is a step below “endangered” under the ESA and allows for more flexibility in how the Act’s protections are implemented.

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