Things are moving inexorably toward March 31, which is when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is expected to announce whether or not the lesser prairie-chicken will be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
But that doesn’t mean ranchers and wildlife managers have been sitting idly by. For the past two years, state wildlife agencies in the five states at the core of the prairie chicken debate—Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado—along with agencies like NRCS and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and others, have been working to develop and implement conservation management plans in an effort to preclude a federal listing of the species.
Whether or not their efforts will be successful remains to be seen. But to date, an impressive amount of prairie chicken habitat has been enrolled in various conservation plans.
Recently, WAFWA announced that private companies in the energy sector have joined ranchers in enrolling habitat. Private companies in five states have now enrolled more than 2.5 million acres in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan,  representing oil and gas, pipelines, electric transmission and wind energy, resulting in nearly $15 million for habitat conservation over the next three years. Added to more than 1.3 million acres of oil and gas leases under conservation agreements in New Mexico, this brings the total industry commitment close to 4 million acres, WAFWA says.
Complementing the range-wide plan, landowner Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) 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 conservation plan and receive the same assurances.
“Under the range-wide plan, a broad coalition of government, industry, agriculture and conservation interests is demonstrating unprecedented collaboration, showing we can take care of this bird and its prairie habitat without needing to list it,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator.
“When you consider all acreage enrolled in the range-wide plan, plus various CCAAs, Farm Bill programs, and other conservation programs across the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, the total area is about the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. This is also approximately half the size of the species’ current range. We believe this sets a record for conservation delivery on predominantly private land for a species under listing consideration,” Van Pelt says.
The range-wide CCAA provides another option for oil and gas companies, which can also enroll directly in the range-wide plan. CCAAs are prelisting conservation tools, where enrollment must occur prior to a listing decision. Unlike the CCAA, enrollment under the range-wide plan can occur at any time before or after the listing decision.
Enrolling companies get regulatory assurances through a special FWS rule or a CCAA 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, according to WAFWA.
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 (CHAT) online database and mapping system.
Farmers, ranchers, and landowners may contact their local state fish and wildlife agency biologist to answer questions about enrollment in the plan.
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