By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
A lead biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish said there is no cause for concern over a report released Tuesday that the lesser prairie chicken population dropped by 50 percent this year.
Biologist Grant Beauprez said the decline is mostly tied to drought conditions and will likely rebound next year with the amount of rain in the area this summer.
Native to New Mexico and four surrounding states, the lesser prairie chicken remains at the center of controversy since it was suggested to be listed as a “threatened” species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s registry.
He said yearly lesser prairie chicken population is just one factor a federal agency will consider in its decision to list the bird as “threatened” on its registry, but it’s not the whole picture.
Beauprez said he and other agents of the other states have drafted a plan to show the USFWS how they are working with communities to preserve the bird.
The USFWS said it will make a decision in March 2014.
The Audubon New Mexico, a state environmental organization, reported based on an aerial survey conducted in the spring the bird’s population dropped from 34,440 to about 17,600.
Opponents of the federal listing fear it will hinder growth of a booming oil and gas industry and trump landowner rights with a slew of regulations set in place for the bird’s protection.
Beauprez and other locals are using conservation plans and science to prove that a listing can be avoidable.
“The drought was a big (impact) but there are also other factors that can affect population numbers. The drought just exacerbates those numbers,” Beauprez said.
Beauprez said he expects to see a bump in prairie chicken populations because weather conditions were much better this year, with some areas of Roosevelt County receiving 16 inches of precipitation by the end of the summer.
He said the proposed range-wide plan addresses the issues the bird faces and explains what the state organizations plan to do to increase the bird’s numbers.
Beauprez said the plan discusses reducing overgrazing and fragmentation in target areas where the bird’s habitat is most important.
“It also creates incentives to stay out of those areas (for landowners and the oil and gas industry),” Beauprez said.
He added that the bird has gone through major drought cycles before and was near extinction in the 1950s but populations grew again.
Curry County Commissioner Wendell Bostwick, a vocal opponent of the listing, said the decline was expected.
“Even quail and other wildlife are declining. Everything is down because there’s nothing for them to eat,” Bostwick said.
Bostwick is confident the population numbers will rise after this year and said there are landowners who are willing to protect the bird and have signed up with conservation plans to prove it.
Bostwick also said the USFWS cannot make a decision until it considers the research from an independent party that the Curry and Roosevelt County commissions used to show that the bird is not threatened in this area.
The commissions presented this information at a coordination meeting with the USFWS in July.