Lesser prairie chicken conclusions presented

By Kevin Baird

CMI staff writer

kbaird@cnjonline.com

Ornithologist Bob Zink told elected leaders from across eastern New Mexico that data on the lesser prairie chicken does not warrant a listing on the threatened species list.

Zink’s conclusions were presented Thursday at a special joint county commission meeting in Portales.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was slated to determine whether it would place the grouse on the endangered species list in September. But in June the USFWS decided to extend the time for its decision until March 2014.

“There is more science we can look at in making a determination on the listing,” said Benjamin Tuggle, USFWS regional director for the southwest region. “The service will do the best job it can to digest and analyze the information that’s out there. We will make an informed decision that is in the best interest of the species.”

Zink, an ornithologist at the University of Minnesota and also affiliated with the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability (CESAR), presented some of the data and conclusions that CESAR made:

  • Although placing markers on the tops of fences would be useful, collision mortality in lesser prairie chicken deaths is a relatively insignificant factor.
  • There is no reason to believe lesser prairie populations are severely impacted by raptors.
  • Direct effects of livestock on the lesser prairie chicken populations are unknown.
  • There is no scientific data indicating noise is a threat to the lesser prairie chicken.
  • “There is no evidence the lesser prairie chicken is in long-term decline.”

Tuggle did not agree with Zink on the condition of the population of the lesser prairie chicken. He said 10 years ago the population of the grouse was about 90,000, and recent research that has not yet been published estimates that the grouse’s population is somewhere between 34,000 and 37,000.

Chaves County chairman Greg Nibert asked Tuggle if data and research that is being considered in the determination of the lesser prairie chicken listing would be available to the public at some point.

Tuggle said USFWS will make its decision transparent and the information would be available at some point online. He also said the counties can send him their own research, information, statements, and any other data they would like to be considered in the decision making process.

Curry County Commissioner Wendell Bostwick asked if the results if all of USFWS’ research would be peer reviewed.

Tuggle said he hopes it all will but it probably won’t all be. He said research will carry “a lot more weight if it is peer reviewed.”

At the end of the meeting the floor was opened to county commissioners to make statements:

  • Bostwick said he hasn’t seen a prairie chicken in Curry County for about 20 years, and he doesn’t know anybody who has seen one in the county either. He said before that he saw them rarely. He said landowners have been participating in the Conservation Reserve Program, wherein landowners stop agricultural activity on a piece of environmentally sensitive land in exchange for a rental check for 20 years now and the deer and antelope have successfully returned to the county, but not the lesser prairie chicken. He said the disappearance of the grouse is most likely the result of the county being in a 20-year drought.

As president of the New Mexico Association of Counties, which represents all 33 counties in New Mexico, Bostwick made a closing statement saying the lesser prairie chicken should not be listed as a threatened species.

  • Roosevelt County commissioner Kendell Buzard said there are a lot of agencies exercising programs to bolster the species but New Mexico is a land of extremes with either feast or famine and the last few years have been record setting drought. He said Roosevelt County needs to have rain if these programs are going to be successful.

FYI:

During Zink’s presentation on the CESAR report, Curry Count Commissioner Bobby Sandoval left his seat on the panel and headed for the doors. While he was walking his posture slumped and his feet began to drag. When he reached the door he could not open it, and two people rushed to his aid,. He was carried out of the ENMU ballroom.

According to Bostwick, Sandoval’s strange episode was a result of low blood pressure. He was transported to the hospital, and was later released and was reported at home resting.

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