This March 2007 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)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species Thursday in a move that could further impact agriculture, oil and gas and other activities in Southeast New Mexico.
Many industry leaders and landowners hoped the agency would not list the bird, following months of negotiating and spending millions on conservation agreements and scientific study.
Dan Ashe, the agency’s director, said he knew the decision would be unpopular with Gov. Susana Martinez and four other governors who worked with a variety of groups to develop the conservations plans.
“The lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits,” Ashe said.
The agency’s determination was that the prairie chicken warranted a listing as a threatened species with a special rule under the Endangered Species Act. It allows more flexibility under the act and will limit regulatory impacts on landowner and businesses.
The listing is one level below the status of “endangered.”
Ashe said unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states for management of the species led to the listing designation.
The listing restricts use on private, state and federal land on the bird’s 40-million acre habitat in Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Kansas. Restrictions will take affect in about 30 days.
Local officials and industry experts were disappointed in the agency’s decision.
“We’re sorry the (FWS) didn’t see fit to pay attention to the overwhelming evidence that we presented and science we presented, that there was absolutely no basis for a listing of any kind,” said Dan Girand, of Roswell, past president of Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico.
To date, oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have signed range-wide conservation plan agreements to participate on more than 3 million acres.
The special decision includes allowing states and private landowners to manage conservation efforts.
Private industry contributed to a $26 million five-state conservation plan, adopted last year by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. That plan that aimed to increase the population of the species, from an estimated 18,000 to 67,000 birds, will be allowed to continue.
The plan called for special conservation practices on agricultural and energy development. The five states expected the plan to ward off a listing and further regulation under the Endangered Species Act.
“The industry invested huge amounts of money into these conservation agreements, yet they did this knowing the facts show no justification for the listing,” Girand said. “The science was just not there. In spite of agreements and in spite of science, they still listed it.”
Chaves County and regional oil and gas producers fought to cooperate with the USFWS in the past year, providing scientific studies and meeting with agency officials.
“We’re all extremely disappointed that this got listed,” said County Commissioner Greg Nibert, also a past president of IPANM and an oil and gas attorney. “They listed it as threatened and that has some serious implications and repercussions on how people will be able to use the lands.”
The listing might also affect future drilling and operations, Nibert said.
“It already has and it will continue to affect oil and gas operations,” Nibert said. “It makes it more difficult and time consuming to get appropriate permits for drilling, development and production.”
The cost to produce will increase, Girand said.
Roughly 40 percent of New Mexico’s state budget is tied directly to oil and gas revenues. And 95 percent of the state’s permanent fund is comprised of those revenues.
Aubrey Dunn, candidate for Lands Commissioner from southern New Mexico, said the decision could affect education funding if the state’s permanent fund receives less revenue.
“I think it’s going to hurt New Mexico’s children and education, because it’s going to end up taking state trust lands out of production,” Dunn said.
Companies looking to invest in the region also may factor into their analysis the regulatory burden that exists and the political risks.
“Unfortunately, this creates another impediment to doing business in New Mexico, which is what we’re concerned about as independent producers,” Nibert said.
“We live here,” Girand said. “We just can’t pick up and move like the majors can.”
Chaves County Commissioner James Duffey said the county understands the need to protect the environment and species of animals, but it needs to be done on a local level.
“I don’t think any of us are really pleased the thing got listed to begin with,” Duffey said. “(Landowners) will try to be good partners, as long as the listing doesn’t put them out of business and affect their economic well-being.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Dist.2, said he was extremely dissatisfied by the decision.
“Existing cooperative conservation efforts between private industry, state officials, landowners and the federal government are more than adequate to protect this species,” Pearce said. “FWS’s actions today not only derail the incredible efforts but also deny a future template for joint conservation efforts.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, blamed drought for the listing and said he was relieved with the FWS’s decision to conserve habitat while providing flexibility for landowners.
Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt has decided to fight the Obama Administration over the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken and other species. He claims the deal was part of an ongoing “sue and settle” scheme that encourages lawsuits that favor environmental groups.
“These settlements, which often impose tougher regulations and shorter timelines than those imposed by Congress, are having a crippling effect on the U.S. economy,” Pruitt said.
In 2010, the FWS chose not to defend a U.S. District Court case brought by WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity. As a result, the agency settled the lawsuit that called for deciding listings for 252 species, including the prairie chicken. Per the settlement, the agency was required to make a determination on the prairie chicken by March 13.