Lesser prairie-chicken goes on threatened species list
By Larry Dreiling
As was expected by many in the conservation community, but dreaded among agricultural, oil, and gas interests, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service March 27 announced the final listing of the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
USFWS made the listing in response to “the rapid and severe decline” of the species. 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.
Also announced was a final special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that will limits regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing.
“In recognition of the significant and ongoing efforts of states and landowners to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken, this unprecedented use of a special 4(d) rule will allow the five range states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ range-wide conservation plan,” a USFWS statement said.
“This range-wide conservation plan was developed by state wildlife agency experts in 2013 with input from a wide variety of stakeholders. The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation.”
Dan Ashe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, said in the statement: “The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits. Our determination that it warrants listing as a threatened species with a special rule acknowledges the unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states (Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado) for management of the species.
“Working through the WAFWA range-wide conservation plan, the states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species—more than has ever been done before— and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements.”
‘Species in trouble’
USFWS has considered the lesser prairie-chicken, a species of prairie grouse commonly recognized for its colorful spring mating display and stout build, to be a species in trouble for the past 15 years. Its population is in rapid decline, due largely to habitat loss and fragmentation and the ongoing drought in the southern Great Plains.
Once abundant across much of the five range states of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, the lesser prairie-chicken’s historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent. Last year, the range-wide population declined to a record low of 17,616 birds, an almost 50 percent reduction from the 2012 population estimate. The states’ conservation plan has a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide, the USFWS statement said.
“To date, we understand that oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have signed up over 3 million acres of land for participation in the states’ range-wide conservation plan and the NRCS’ Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative,” said Ashe. “We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie-chickens.”
In addition to the range-wide conservation plan and the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, a number of other on-the-ground programs have been implemented over the last decade across the bird’s five-state range to conserve and restore its habitat and improve its status.
Key programs such as the USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, the Bureau of Land Management’s New Mexico Candidate Conservation Agreement, the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, are engaging state and federal agencies, landowners and industry in these efforts.
Indeed, 32 private companies in five states representing oil and gas, pipelines, electric transmission and wind energy have committed to enroll more than 3.6 million acres in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, providing about $21 million for habitat conservation over three years, according to a release from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
The latest enrollment surge came a week before the USFWS deadline to announce its decision.
Enrolling companies get regulatory assurances through a special USFWS rule or a Conservation Candidate Agreement with Assurances permit, so that if the species is listed the companies have a pathway to continue operations and development in the region.
The companies agree to pay modest enrollment fees, follow a list of guidelines to minimize impacts on the bird, and agree to pay for impacts they cannot avoid. The money goes to farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect and restore habitat for the bird.
“The range-wide plan represents more than a pathway to mitigate industry impacts,” said Bill Van Pelt, grassland coordinator for WAFWA, which developed the range-wide plan working with state wildlife agencies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, and others.
“It also serves as a way to unify all existing lesser prairie-chicken programs under a common set of goals to conserve the species. Each of those programs has been successful in its own right.”
Van Pelt said those related efforts include:
The Conservation Reserve Program managed by the USDA Farm Service Agency (about 3.4 million acres across the bird’s range);
Working Lands for Wildlife Program and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative managed by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (about 800,000 acres);
The New Mexico Candidate Conservation Agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances managed by the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management (about 1.5 million acres of industry enrollment and 1.75 million acres of ranching enrollment), and
Farming/ranching CCAAs in Oklahoma and Texas (about 820,000 acres).
Companies signed up
Companies enrolling in the range-wide plan include American Electric Power; Apache Corporation; Bailey County Electric Cooperative; Central Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc.; COG Operating LLC; ConocoPhillips; Continental Resources, Inc.; Devon Energy Corp.; Energex LLC; EnerVest Operating LLC; Fasken Oil and Ranch, Ltd; Greenbelt Electric Cooperative, Inc.; Linn Energy; Marathon Oil Corporation; Mewbourne Oil Company; Northfork Electric Cooperative, Inc.; Northwestern Electric Cooperative, Inc.; Occidental Oil and Gas Corporation; Oklahoma Gas and Electric Energy Corp.; Peregrine Petroleum Partners, Ltd.; Pioneer Natural Resources; Prairie Wind Transmission LLC, a joint venture between Westar Energy and Electric Transmission America; QEP Resources Inc.; Roosevelt County Electric Cooperative; Samson Resources; Tri-County Electric Cooperative, Inc.; and Western Farmers Electric Cooperative.
As a courtesy to enrolling companies, WAFWA is still contacting the remaining few for permission to announce their names.
Complementing the range-wide plan, landowner CCAAs offer legal assurances for farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. These cover a total of nearly 2.3 million acres across the three states. Landowners in Colorado and Kansas, who do not have access to a ranching CCAA, can enroll their lands under the range-wide plan and receive the same assurances.
The range-wide plan includes habitat management goals and conservation practices to be applied throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, guided by the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool online database and mapping system, a project supported by the Western Governors Association.
Condemnation came from all sides of the political spectrum about the announcement and the unprecedented agreement in which current conservation practices can be used to protect the lesser prairie-chicken. Conservatives thought the rule went too far, while liberals thought the rule didn’t go far enough.
“This is an overreach on the part of the federal government, and I am concerned about the effect this designation will have on Kansans and the Kansas economy. We are looking at possible responses on this issue,” Gov. Sam Brownback, R-KS, said.
Hours later, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison issued a statement, saying, “This wasn’t the decision we hoped to hear. A lot of work went into a plan to show that state wildlife agencies could manage and conserve lesser prairie-chickens without designating the species as threatened.”
For the past 18 months, the statement said, KDWPT participated in the WAFWA working group. Keith Sexson, KDWPT assistant secretary, was actively involved in the process and is pleased with the way state agencies worked together.
“The feeling among state wildlife agencies was that such a plan would benefit lesser prairie-chickens through voluntary support from industry and private landowners, and perhaps dissuade the USFWS from listing the species,” Sexson said.
“I’m proud of the effort and passion shown by our staff to help create this plan, and it demonstrates the ability for state fish and wildlife agencies to work together with industry and private landowners to deliver an approach that will result in positive conservation for the lesser prairie-chicken.”
While the USFWS endorsed the final version of the conservation plan, it didn’t prevent the final listing of the species.
“I believe the development and initial success of the range-wide plan shows that our staff have the expertise necessary to manage lesser prairie chickens and their habitats. I think we missed an opportunity to break out of the status quo in managing species in need of conservation,” Jennison said.
“Had the final decision been ‘not warranted,’ the range-wide plan would have represented a groundbreaking new approach for the way these decisions are made. We have a plan that would have conserved prairie chickens and benefitted all stakeholders without the burdensome red tape and often times heavy-handed approach of the federal government.”
“I was disappointed the Fish and Wildlife Service announced the listing of the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK. “I believe the conservation efforts seen in the five-range states were more than sufficient to warrant a non-listing.
“While I understand the importance of conserving the species, this means Oklahoma farmers, ranchers and energy producers will have to abide to an additional layer of burdensome regulations. Looking forward, it is my hope the Obama administration will realize saddling Americans with additional regulatory burdens through arbitrary means is harmful to the economy.
“The efforts by Oklahomans to conserve the species were and continue to be unprecedented. As the congressman representing the Third District, I will continue working with stakeholders to preserve the future of the industries important to Oklahoma and the rest of the country.”
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive officer of Defenders of Wildlife, criticized the threatened listing as being weakened by overly broad exemptions for land uses under the section 4(d) rule that allows excessive land use development to continue throughout the bird’s habitat—weakening the protections provided by the ESA and further jeopardizing the lesser prairie chicken’s survival.
“We are talking about a species whose population has plummeted to half of its numbers in just one year,” Rappaport Clark said. “This bird deserves effective federal protection, and the government recognized that over 15 years ago. Protecting this species under the ESA is clearly justified based on the best available scientific information, but because this threatened listing is so full of loopholes and exemptions, it will likely be insufficient to help conserve and recover the bird.”
Conserving the area that is the bird’s habitat and that define this region does not mean threatening the livelihood of the region’s residents, Rappaport Clark said. Voluntary and collaborative conservation plans can be extremely helpful to preserve the imperiled natural heritage for future generations, but only if those plans are science-based and have a demonstrated track record of results to show that they actually protect species and the important habitat they need to survive, the Defenders of Wildlife head said.
“The problem with the recently completed conservation agreements for the prairie chicken is that they have no proven record of success,” Rappaport Clark said. “They fail to provide adequate conservation measures and defer almost entirely to state wildlife agencies for the oversight and implementation of the agreements. The Service is clearly walking away from its oversight and enforcement responsibilities and is setting a dangerous precedent for accountability under the ESA.”
In a statement, the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president, West Coast and manager for land, water and wildlife programs, David Festa said, “It’s a sad day when a species has to get listed. The bright spot is that (USFWS) has opened the door to innovative approaches for species conservation, as demonstrated by its commitment to range-wide planning.
“By sharing the responsibility for species protection with the states and private landowners, (USFWS) has increased the potential for recovery of the lesser prairie-chicken. This is a big evolution in how the Act gets implemented.
“We believe more can, and should, be done to engage private landowners. I am hopeful that through modern species conservation measures like habitat exchanges currently under consideration with (USFWS), we can meet the challenge of feeding and fueling a growing population without harming the planet in the process.”
WAFWA, in its release, however, said that collectively, all the voluntary programs—and in particular, the range-wide conservation plan—serve as a comprehensive framework within which conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken can be achieved.
The various efforts are similar to a recovery plan, something that the Service normally prepares after a species’ listing. This early identification of a strategy to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken is likely to speed its eventual delisting.
However, threats impacting the species remain and are expected to continue into the future. After reviewing the best available science and on-the-ground conservation efforts focused on the species, USFWS determined that the lesser prairie-chicken is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future and warrants listing as threatened under the ESA. The agency was under a court-ordered deadline to make a listing determination on the species by March 31.
The final rule to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened and the final special rule will publish in the Federal Register and will be effective 30 days after publication.
Copies of the final rules may be found at the Service’s website at http://www.fws.gov/southwest. The range-wide plan can be viewed at wafwa.gov. Industry representatives with questions about the plan may contact Sean Kyle, chairman of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farmers, ranchers, and landowners may contact their local state fish and wildlife agency biologist to answer questions about enrollment in the plan.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at email@example.com.