By Kevin Wilson
CMI staff writer
In a decision the Fish and Wildlife Service admits isn’t appealing to governors of its five affected states, and a decision that local officials think may deserve an appeal, the lesser prairie chicken has been selected for placement as a threatened species.
The decision by Fish and Wildlife is a step below endangered status and allows for some flexibility in how protections will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act.
Landowners and opponents of the listing still fear a slew of regulations to protect the bird will follow this listing, possibly hindering their operations, but farmers who signed some sort of conservation agreement may not need to worry.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the FWS supports the efforts of New Mexico farmers and ranchers as well as those in the energy industry to conserve the bird’s habitat.
“Fish and Wildlife officials have assured me that even with this listing, anyone participating in a voluntary conservation agreement will be able to continue business as usual, and there is still time to sign up,” said Udall in a statement.
These agreements protects those in the energy industry and landowners from criminal and civil penalties for accidental “take,” which is a term defined by the FWS as killing or harming the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat.
But there are farmers who aren’t happy.
Curry County Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said he was both surprised and disappointed in the decision when contacted Thursday afternoon. Bostwick said he couldn’t speak for the commission or other groups opposing the listing, but if he had the deciding vote, “We will probably have to meet them in the courthouse.”
“I say that,” Bostwick continued, “because I feel we have presented sufficient scientific data, which has been peer-reviewed, to challenge this listing. We also presented information that discredits (FWS’s) count process and their verification process.”
Bostwick said he is scheduled to attend a meeting in Socorro with officials from other counties about the impacts of the Endangered Species Act, and will know more about what local and state responses will be.
Dan Ashe, director for FWS, said the bird is in “dire straits,” and has been in decline for more than a decade. Ashe said the bird, best known for its colorful feathers, stout build and boisterous mating dance, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat through a combination of drought and industries such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and wind power — the same industries that fought the listing over concerns over how it would affect their businesses.
Last year, FWS said the prairie chicken’s population across the five states was estimated at fewer than 18,000 birds — nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 population estimates. A conservation plan adopted by the five states has a goal of increasing the population to 67,000 birds.
Biologists say a major problem is that prairie chickens fear tall structures, where predators such as hawks can perch and spot them. That would include wind turbines, electricity transmission towers and oil drilling rigs.
Governors of the five affected states last year opposed listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act. In a joint statement last year, Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Rick Perry of Texas, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas and John Hickenlooper of Colorado said their states have worked with affected groups to develop conservation plans to improve the bird’s habitat while “taking into account economic development needs.”
The listing decision, which will take effect around May 1, includes a special rule that Ashe said will allow officials and private landowners in the five affected states to manage conservation efforts. The rule, which Ashe called unprecedented, specifies that activities such as oil and gas drilling and utility line maintenance that are covered under a five-state conservation plan adopted last year will be allowed to continue.
Jake Swafford, a Portales-based wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever, said the conservation plan offers some financial assistance for participation, and many measures will help farmers also deal with drought conditions.
“I think for New Mexico, an important step is to continue with these conservation programs,” Swafford said. “There is a process to get the species off the threatened list. Conservation on the ground is going to help the species, and help the landowners as well.
“New Mexico has had an incredible amount of participation in these programs so far. Even up to last week, people were asking about them. We’d like to see continued interest in them.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.