March 28–The Martinez administration blasted a federal government decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened,” saying the move will undermine a multistate agreement to conserve the bird and “decimate economic development and job creation in southeastern New Mexico.”
In announcing its decision to list the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the bird is in “dire straits” in a habitat that spans five states. The total population dropped to 17,616 birds in the 2013 census from more than 34,000 the year before.
The move came despite an aggressive voluntary conservation program led by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The program has enrolled 32 companies and about 4million acres across the bird’s five-state range, which also stretches across parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas.
Participating companies and landowners agree to mitigate impacts on the birds’ habitat, pay for those they cannot avoid and by doing so sidestep additional regulatory requirements. Companies and landowners that choose not to participate will probably face additional federal restrictions on land use.
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, characterized the federal listing as unfortunate but did not challenge it. They also said that collaborative efforts to spare the chicken’s listing in the state have resulted in better conservation practices.
“While those proactive measures are tremendously beneficial, they unfortunately did not come in time to reverse the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie chicken,” Heinrich said.
A joint statement by three Cabinet secretaries in the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez — Game and Fish; Agriculture; and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources — called the decision “misguided.”
It said that even though the voluntary conservation efforts are working, “the federal government made a decision today that provides no realistic or measurable benefit to the species itself” but will cause significant economic harm.
However, Bill Van Pelt, grassland coordinator at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said the decision will not affect the conservation agreements and also allows each state to manage conservation programs. He called the decision both “disappointing” and “precedent-setting.”
On the one hand, despite “the tremendous amount of conservation that is being focused on the species, the service is saying it’s not quite enough yet,” Van Pelt said.
On the other, “because the rangewide plan is so comprehensive, they still allow the states to maintain the lead with the conservation of the species,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
The lesser prairie chicken is best-known for its exotic display during breeding — a season that is just beginning and will heat up in April in the southeastern part of the state. The birds coo, gobble and show off their black, white and orange feathers.
Drought has punished the birds, which need humidity for their eggs and rain to nourish the insects they feed on. Oil and gas development, wind farms and power transmission lines all threaten the habitat by providing high points for lesser prairie chickens’ predators to perch upon.
This year’s census appears “precariously low,” said Doug Lynn, executive director of Carlsbad’s Center for Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, a nonprofit that has brokered local conservation agreements with landowners to protect the lesser prairie chicken.
“We’re seeing much lower numbers this breeding season than we have in past years,” he said.
The “threatened” designation — which would typically come with tougher land use restrictions — carries with it an unusual exemption that allows each of the five range states to manage their own conservation efforts for the species and “avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement.
Some landowners had hoped voluntary conservation programs would preclude a formal listing by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those that have not yet enrolled in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies program can join any time, Van Pelt said.
Udall said private citizens, industry and public land management agencies have put an impressive amount of effort toward protecting the habitat of the lesser prairie chicken.
“We all had hoped those strong steps would avoid a listing. But years of severe drought have been hard on everyone in the five-state region; the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the efforts haven’t yet been enough to conserve the bird’s habitat, and time was running out.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican who had lobbied hard against the chicken’s listing, said he was “extremely dissatisfied” in a ruling he said would harm New Mexico’s economy.
“Existing cooperative conservation efforts between private industry, state officials, landowners and the federal government are more than adequate to protect this species,” Pearce said.
In addition to the rangewide conservation plan, Lynn said, the Carlsbad center has enrolled 42 oil and gas companies and 63 ranches to protect more than 3million acres of habitat in New Mexico. Conservation efforts have included reclaiming legacy oil and gas structures and old roads and refurbishing habitat.
Erik Molvar of WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group, described the exemption to the listing as a “loophole” that puts the birds’ future at risk.
“There is a danger that with the combination of climate factors together with habitat degradation caused by oil and gas development and agriculture we could see the population decline catastrophically,” said Molvar, a wildlife biologist.
“The New Mexico population is particularly at risk, because it is isolated from the other population groups. All you need is one outbreak of a disease or a drought and the population could tank.”
Staff writer Michael Coleman of the Journal’s
Washington Bureau contributed to this report.