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.

Still, the second annual report said “WAFWA is currently pursuing several potential permanent conservation properties and intends to secure some additional acreage during the next reporting period.”

Temporary conservation measures have been placed on 67,512 acres, and 8,214 acres of lesser prairie chicken habitat has been restored, the report said.

Overall, WAFWA claims the rangewide plan is working.

“Conservation of the lesser prairie chicken is a long-haul proposition,” said Alexa Sandoval, the chairwoman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council, a WAFWA group made up of state wildlife regulators from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, the five states in which the bird is found.

Sandoval, who is also the director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, added that two years into the program, there were “many positive indicators” for the bird.

The report estimated there were 29,162 lesser prairie chickens as of 2015. That total represents a 25 percent increase over the previous year’s population size, WAFWA said. WAFWA attributed the increase to “an abundance of spring 2015 rainfall, along with ongoing efforts associated with the rangewide plan and other conservation initiatives.”

Industry partners have also committed nearly $51 million in fees to pay for mitigation actions, WAFWA reported. There are currently 177 companies enrolled in WAFWA conservation agreements.

In recent comments on WAFWA’s last annual report, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe cast doubt on its ability to clearly analyze the impact of the rangewide plan. As of last December, WAFWA did not have a database able to track affected land and corresponding mitigation efforts.

As a result, “the Service is unable to determine that the [rangewide plan] is offsetting the impacts to lesser prairie-chickens,” Ashe said. “We consider this a crucial deficiency and we must redouble effort to get a successful conclusion” (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

The lesser prairie chicken was on FWS’s list of threatened species from March 2014 until last September, when Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas threw out federal protections for the bird because the agency didn’t fully take the rangewide plan into consideration. Earlier this year, he declined the agency’s request to let it revise its threatened listing for the species (E&ENews PM, Feb. 29).