This March 2007 file photo provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shows a male lesser prairie chicken in a mating stature in the Texas panhandle. (AP Photo)
Local officials and the oil industry are cautious about a new deal offered recently by the federal government that asks landowners to implement conservation measures to protect the lesser prairie chicken.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has offered up an opportunity for landowners to take steps to conserve and preserve habitat. Basically, if they don’t get caught with a dead prairie chicken on their land, they won’t be fined or prosecuted.
“As long as they continue to implement the … conservation plan then they have nothing to fear from the Endangered Species Act or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Dan Ashe, the wildlife service’s director, told The Associated Press.
The wildlife service is expected to announce whether the bird will be listed as a federally protected threatened species by March 30.
Landowners in lesser prairie chicken habitat will be asked, for instance, to agree to take steps to keep grasses long enough to hide nests, clear brush and build ramps in cattle water troughs to ensure birds don’t drown.
Chaves County Commissioner James Duffey said he thought landowners need to carefully consider the agreement before signing it.
“I think every person that’s involved will have to look at the agreement and see if it’s good or bad for their personal situation.”
The county commission has actively engaged in discussions with the wildlife service about the lesser prairie chicken issue in the past few months. Commissioners met with USFWS Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle in July to discuss possible economic impacts a listing could have on the county.
“We want to be at the table when everything is discussed, “ Duffey said. “As a county, we want our voices heard with the federal government. Whether it’s the wolf issue, the prairie chicken, the lizard … any of these issues can be disastrous on the economy of Chaves County or New Mexico.”
Chaves County landowners and industries already adhere to conservation plans that require taking steps to protect the prairie chicken.
A listing would impact the plains of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. A wildlife service study shows a recent decline due to drought and loss of habitat.
Richard Gilliland, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, said the five-state range-wide management plan would hopefully still allow some protections for industry to continue to operate.
“We are concerned, as all New Mexico residents should be, about the potentially severe impact that a decision to list would have on our region’s economy,” Gilliland said. “
Several state county governments supplied the USFWS with a third-party, peer-reviewed, comprehensive study that determined the data did not support listing the prairie chicken.
“It is ultimately our hope that the USFWS will decide against listing the chicken under the (Endangered Species Act),” Gilliland said.
The oil and gas industry donated some 1 million acres of leasehold to protect the lesser prairie chicken habitat and in 2012 alone, contributing over $2.5 million to fund the conservation program.
If the bird is listed, the state program could come to a complete halt and all management efforts would be taken over by the federal government, Gilliland said.