New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department Director Jim Lane urged farmers and ranchers Monday to sign on to a five-state cooperative effort to help preserve the lesser prairie chicken before federal regulators impose stricter guidelines that may not work as well.
Lane was the featured speaker at a dinner Monday in Tucumcari sponsored by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the Farm Bureau.
The five-state effort, he said, “is unlike anything the U.S. has ever seen before.”
It is an attempt by the states that have lesser prairie chicken populations to preserve populations of the bird in a way that meets the needs of business, industry and agriculture without the severe restrictions of federal Endangered Species Act regulations, he said.
The five states are New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.
Lane said that populations of the lesser prairie chicken rise and fall dramatically with changes in climate.
In a drought year, he said, the prairie chicken population can be half of what it is in a wetter year. Since all five of the states have been in drought for the past several years, prairie chicken populations are down to about 17,000 this year.
Last year, he said the population was about 34,000. He said that with the five state plan, populations of the bird could increase to 67,000 by 2016.
The lesser prairie chicken, he said, is a “neat animal,” worth conserving. Its unique and elaborate mating rituals, including a booming sound that can be heard two miles away on a calm day, make it a treasure.
Because of the wide variations in population that occur naturally, he said, the federal government should hesitate to declare the lesser prairie chicken either threatened or endangered. Such a designation would severely limit any grazing and farming practices, or wind energy and oil and gas extraction practices that would constitute “takings” of the lesser prairie chicken.
“Takings” is defined very broadly under the Endangered Species Act, he said. “It includes any harassment, pursuit, or disruption of feeding or breeding” of the bird.
There are restrictions in the five-state plan for those who sign on, he said, but they are not as confining as Endangered Species Act requirements.
“It is not painless,” he said of the voluntary five-state conservation plan, “but not as painful as the Endangered Species Act.”
Most important, he said, it puts the states involved in control of how the lesser prairie chicken is preserved, not the federal government. That is especially important in the west, he said, where there are vast areas of land under federal control through the Bureau of Land Management.
In New Mexico, Lane said, 2 million acres of federal land are already registered under the five-state conservation plan through Bureau of Land Management cooperation.
He said the five-state plan would do a better job of preserving the lesser prairie chicken than federal Endangered Species Act requirements, because local officials in the five states have better knowledge of the bird’s habitat and can adapt the plan to meet local needs.
For example, he said, even allowing the lesser prairie chicken, a species of grouse, to be hunted could lead to improved conservation, because hunting license fees and regulations could be applied directly to preservation activities.
Lane also warned of pending regulations involving the Mexican Gray Wolf, which is considered an endangered species, since only 75 to 100 are alive in the wild. There are about 300 of these animals in captivity, he said.
Plans are being made, he said, to release some Mexican Gray Wolves into the wild as far north as I-40, and he said Game and Fish and others in the state are working to ensure that reasonable rules are in place to protect cattle from the wolves, he said.