Lesser Prairie Chicken Makes a Comeback

Red Dirt Report, May 13th, 2016

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Though US Won't Appeal Court Rulings on Lesser Prairie Chicken, Conservation Efforts See Success In Habitat, Population Numbers By Heide Brandes

Although the U.S. government said Wednesday that it will not appeal a Texas court ruling that took the lesser prairie chicken off of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, those working in conservation say the decision will have little impact on current efforts to boost the bird’s population.

The Justice Department filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss its appeals of rulings made in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas which said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to properly evaluate a conservation plan when it listed the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened.”

That same multi-state conservation plan, however, is only two years old. Those involved in the plan said they will continue to move forward with the conservation efforts whether the bird is listed as threatened or not, and so far, the plan is working. WAFWA and the LPC

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), of which Oklahoma is a member, created the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan in 2015. The five states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas make up the habitat of the lesser prairie chicken, and the multi-state plan was developed to ensure conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken with voluntary cooperation of landowners and industry.

This plan allows agriculture producers, energy producers and industry to continue operations while reducing impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat.

“We have 177 companies whose activities encompass 10 million acres of the 40 million acres of the chicken habitat,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator. “The Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan creates a mitigating program that allows industries to be able to function by enrolling in the plan and implementing conservation efforts.”

If a company has an oil well on land that’s used for breeding, for instance, the plan asks them to modify their well for a period of time during breeding. These industries have also contributed $55 million to be a part of this plan, which is then used to work with landowners to teach them how to manage their land for the birds.

The lesser prairie chicken a North American grouse species whose numbers and habitats have diminished across their historical range by about 90 percent. Although the bird’s population fluctuates dramatically due mostly to drought, WAWFA now believes the LPC is not in danger of a death spiral.

“The decision by the Fish and Wildlife to not pursue a threatened rating doesn’t matter. We’re on record saying we are continuing business as usual with this plan,” said Van Pelt. “This program is unique – one of a kind. It also demonstrates that working together on a state and local level can result in creative solutions that allow for economic development and conservation at the same time.”

GOOD NUMBERS

As part of the range plan, both ground and aerial surveys are utilized in all states in the same manner to help determine population numbers, Van Pelt said. According to the 2015 range-wide aerial survey, a 25 percent increase in the lesser prairie-chicken population was noted, with an estimated total of 29,162 birds.

“We had more rain, so we saw a jump in the population numbers,” Van Pelt said, adding that aerial surveys for 2016 are underway and will run through mid-May. Results are anticipated in early July.

The plan is also seeing additional results. Conservation measures resulted in habitat restoration on 8,214 of 15,911 prescribed acres. A total of $1,821,737 was paid to landowners managing their lands to generate credits for lesser prairie-chicken conservation. In addition, WAFWA acquired title to a 1,604-acre tract of Texas native rangeland in June 2015, near the Yoakum Dunes Wildlife Management Area in West Texas.

In 2015, there were several industries participating, including oil and gas, pipeline, electric, wind energy and telecommunications. During this past year, 177 companies were enrolled in WAFWA conservation agreements.

“Sixty-eight percent of the companies enrolled are using our map tool to find well sites that are not listed as crucial habitat,” said Van Pelt. “They do that willingly. This is a new program and a new way of doing business. We just need time to see how it goes in the long run.

“Thanks to the plan, we don’t see the lesser prairie chicken on a death spiral. We need to see if this way of doing things works for the prairie chicken and possibly for other wildlife in the future.”

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