Local lawmakers and representatives of state and federal agencies heard a proposed management plan for the conservation of the lesser prairie chicken Wednesday at the Game and Fish Department.
In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the process to consider whether the lesser prairie chicken should be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Service had been aware of the threats to the lesser prairie chicken for more than a decade, but listing consideration was not immediate because of other species facing more severe threats.
State wildlife agencies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas formed the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group to develop a range-wide conservation plan for the lesser prairie chicken.
Grant Beauprez, prairie chicken biologist for Game and Fish, said his agency is not in support of the listing, as it thinks the bird can be handled better as it is now. The plan, he said, will include scientifically-based population and habitat goals for the species.
The range of the species has reduced about 85 percent from its original range, Beauprez said. In 2012, range-wide aerial monitoring estimated that approximately 37,000 birds throughout the five states. Of that, about 3,700 were found in eastern New Mexico and western Texas.
Beauprez said the dwindling numbers are caused by drought and other threats that have contributed to fragmentation of habitat, such as agricultural land use, livestock grazing, wind energy transmission and oil and gas development and production.
The management plan would create focal areas throughout the range where conservation efforts will be concentrated. Beauprez said focal areas would average more than 7 million acres range-wide; the one that would stretch across areas of Chaves, Roosevelt and Lea counties would be more than 770,000 acres.
Range-wide, the goal is to get the bird’s population up to 67,000 and 8,000 in the New Mexico/Texas region.
The plan also would try to minimize the impacts of focal areas on existing Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances of landowners and oil and gas companies.
CCAAs are voluntary conservation agreements between the Service and owners of non-federal land. As long as landowners honor conservation activities, they are not subject to additional restrictions if the species becomes listed, said Doug Burger, Bureau of Land Management’s Pecos District manager.
He encouraged landowners to enroll in a CCAA while the offer exists. Previous CCAAs can be amended to include additional acreage, if necessary.
The Group will submit its plan by end of March, before the end of the Service’s public comment period. The final ruling will be given in September.
Anyone can submit comments to the Service and there is a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., at the Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell Performing Arts Center, 64 University Blvd.