ENDANGERED SPECIES

Interior takes up free-market plan to preserve lesser prairie chicken

The Interior Department this morning announced it will consider a free-market habitat exchange as a way to conserve and restore the imperiled lesser prairie chicken, part of a multipronged approach to blunt the economic impacts of the bird's likely listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will prepare an environmental impact statement and consider issuing an incidental take permit allowing regulatory relief for oil and gas drillers, farmers and ranchers who participate in the habitat exchange.

The habitat credit exchange is led by the Environmental Defense Fund and is part of the broader "stakeholder conservation strategy," or SCS. It's different from a similar effort known as the rangewide conservation plan led by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) (Greenwire, Jan. 31).

Both plans seek to allow energy developers to offset their impacts to the prairie chicken by paying mitigation fees so landowners can conserve and restore habitat -- though they have some key differences.

The SCS includes more than a dozen conservation, agricultural, energy, government and academic groups, including EDF and the Nature Conservancy and energy giants BP PLC, Chesapeake, Chevron, SandRidge and Exxon Mobil.

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Other members include the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Farm Bureau, the Plains Cotton Growers, the Texas Wheat Producers Association, the Texas Watershed Management Foundation, Oklahoma State University, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"It's a much more dynamic system," said David Festa, EDF's West Coast vice president, who leads the group's land, water and wildlife program.

The SCS has three main components: the habitat conservation plan, which facilitates the issuance of an incidental take permit; the habitat credit exchange, which allows developers and landowners to barter over the conservation of chicken habitat; and the Habitat Quantification Tool, which helps determine what energy companies must do to mitigate their projects.

Fish and Wildlife must decide by the end of next month whether to finalize its proposal to list the prairie chicken as threatened in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, a move some fear would hamper energy companies and the livelihoods of landowners.

The lesser prairie chicken, a colorful bird that sports a bright yellow eye band and bulbous air sacs in males, has been on the endangered species candidate list -- derided as "purgatory" by some environmental groups -- for more than a decade. Federal scientists say grazing, tree encroachment, conversion of rangeland to crops and non-native forage, energy development, and increased disturbance are primary causes of the bird's decline.

Festa said the habitat credit exchange is designed to operate regardless of whether the bird is listed. Oil and gas companies, for example, invest over 20-year horizons and need to prepare for the potential for a listing, he said.

"No one can look at the populations of the prairie chicken and say things look pretty good," Festa said. "The trend line suggests there will be an inevitable listing, if not this year, sometime in the future."

Festa said that WAFWA's rangewide plan is a "tried and true" method for preserving the bird, but that EDF's habitat credit exchange sports some novel features.

For one, the price for conservation actions is not fixed, so energy companies and landowners can bid among themselves to get conservation for the lowest cost. Participating landowners could earn credits by promoting native grass restoration, fence marking, prescribed burning or woody species removal.

"Instead of having the government set the price for conservation, we let the buyers and sellers set the price," he said.

'Very rigorous vetting'

The challenge is measuring what a company must do to mitigate for the construction of well pads, roads, transmission lines and other impacts, and determining what landowners must do in exchange.

The SCS enlisted scientists including Sam Fuhlendorf and Dwayne Elmore of Oklahoma State University, David Augustine of the Agriculture Department and EDF's Ted Toombs to make those determinations.

"There's going to be a very rigorous vetting of this by [Fish and Wildlife Service] scientists," Festa said.

That's part of what Fish and Wildlife will do in its environmental impact statement. It will also take 30 days of public comments and hold public meetings within the proposed permit area.

In order to receive a take permit, applicants must prove they will minimize incidental take and mitigate unavoidable impacts "to the maximum extent practicable," according to Fish and Wildlife.

The rangewide plan being implemented by WAFWA is on a slightly different path.

Fish and Wildlife last fall endorsed the plan and said those who enroll in it may be exempt from ESA restrictions if the prairie chicken is listed as "threatened." It has proposed a special regulation known as a 4(d) rule.

WAFWA last week announced that five oil and gas companies -- Continental Resources Inc., Devon Energy Corp., Apache Corp., Occidental Oil and Gas Corp. and Samson Resources Corp. -- have agreed to take part in the rangewide plan.

Yesterday, WAFWA announced it is accepting applications through Feb. 28 from agricultural producers willing to implement conservation practices including mechanical brush removal, prescribed grazing and the planting of native grass stands.

Landowners in prime prairie chicken habitat could be paid up to 125 percent of the cost of implementing conservation steps, WAFWA said.

FWS Director Dan Ashe has said in the past that the final listing decision will be determined in part by how many enroll in the rangewide plan.

"It is a very important step to get this endorsement out today and get the states working toward implementation," Ashe said in October of the conservation plan. "We will consider in our listing determination the record of success and sign-up that occurs between now and March."

There's little time to waste, Ashe said. The health of the lesser prairie chicken -- whose population plummeted by 50 percent from 2012 to 2013 following a withering drought -- is "quite poor," he said.

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