By Steven Hansen
QCS managing editor
Federal control over protecting the Lesser Prairie Chicken is the main reason local ranchers and officials approve of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endorsement of a five-state plan designed to preserve the bird. The plan, called the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan, may also prevent the bird from being listed as either threatened or endangered, but that is an option the federal agency reserves to itself.
The five-state plan was drawn up by Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado, the only states in the U.S. that have lesser prairie chicken populations, and, according to Jim Lane, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, it is a first.
When Lane spoke to New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the Farm Bureau in Tucumcari on Oct.14, he said the five-state effort “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.
Quay County rancher Bill Humphries, who has been active in efforts to keep the lesser prairie chicken from being declared threatened or endangered, said the endorsement is “a good thing, assuming the bird doesn’t get listed.”
The five-state plan keeps control of efforts to preserve the bird in the hands of the states that have the populations, he said, while imposing restrictions on the energy industry and ranchers that are less burdensome than those the federal government would impose if the lesser prairie chicken was listed as either threatened or endangered.
Quay County rancher Tom Sidwell also welcomed Fish and Wildlife’s endorsement of the regional plan.
“It keeps control over efforts to preserve the bird at the state level,” he said, which means that measures taken under the plan will be more responsive to local business and agricultural interests.
Quay County Manager Richard Primrose, who has spearheaded county efforts to support ranchers in their quest to get the five-state plan adopted, also cited state control as the regional plan’s chief benefit.
In a news release, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed the five-state plan as a “a landmark, collaborative planning effort to conserve a species proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
“After an extensive review, the Service found the plan is consistent with criteria proposed last May for conserving the species , which is proposed for listing under the ESA,” the Fish and Wildlife service’s news release said.
According to Fish and Wildlife, the plan provides financial incentives to landowners who voluntarily manage their lands to benefit the lesser prairie chicken, as well as a framework for mitigating the potentially harmful effects on the bird’s habitat from development activity throughout its range. “ The unprecedented collaborative efforts of the regional fish and wildlife association and the five states’ wildlife agencies have produced a sound conservation plan for the lesser prairie chicken,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
The federal agency’s news release, however made it clear that its endorsement of the plan is “not a decision by the Service that implementing the plan will preclude the need to protect the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act. The Service will carefully consider the plan, its implementation and effectiveness when it makes a final determination on whether to list the lesser prairie chicken under the ESA in March 2014.”
The lesser prairie chicken is a species of grouse that has unique mating rituals and is considered a valuable species in the plains states. The Fish and Wildlife news release called it a “key indicator of the health of the southern Great Plains and grasslands across the central United States as a whole.”
Fish and Wildlife also said the species’ historical range has decreased by an estimated 84 percent, due to habitat fragmentation and loss caused by development and conversion of land to new uses. Drought caused a decline of 50 percent in the bird’s population in 2012.
Founded in 1922, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies consists of 23 member states and provinces that have primary responsibility and authority for protecting and managing fish and wildlife in the western United States and Canada.