The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized a voluntary agreement designed to protect the lesser prairie chicken and its dwindling habitat from oil and gas drilling activity as the deadline approaches for the service to decide whether to list the colorful bird as threatened.
FWS and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) announced late Friday that they had signed the formal agreement, called the Range-wide Oil and Gas Candidate Conservation Agreement With Assurances.
Landowners and companies that enroll in the Candidate Conservation Agreement With Assurances (CCAA) through WAFWA agree to take steps to protect lesser prairie chicken habitat and to pay a mitigation fee if their actions harm the bird's habitat. In exchange, the service agrees not to impose any further restrictions or mandates on the participants if the bird is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
As part of the effort, Fish and Wildlife on Friday also issued an "enhancement of survival" permit that authorizes the incidental killing, harming or harassing of lesser prairie chickens that result from implementing measures under the CCAA. The permit takes effect only if the bird is federally listed.
"This landmark agreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies shows how cooperation between federal and state government agencies and private landowners can help advance conservation objectives while considering the economic needs of the nation," FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. "It is also another example of how flexibility in the Endangered Species Act helps us address the complex issues often associated with protecting our rarest wildlife and their habitats."
The agreement is one of a number of voluntary options for landowners and industry outlined in the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan devised by the five states that are home to the lesser prairie chicken's range: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
Fish and Wildlife last fall formally endorsed the range-wide conservation plan effort led by WAFWA, which represents 23 states from Texas to Alaska to Hawaii -- and advocates for state regulation of wildlife.
The latest agreement between Fish and Wildlife and WAFWA comes just weeks before a March 31 deadline by which the service must decide whether to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The service in December 2012 proposed listing the ground-dwelling bird as threatened.
Fish and Wildlife, WAFWA and the five states within the bird's habitat have adopted or are considering adopting a host of strategies to save the lesser prairie chicken, whose habitat and numbers have been in decline for years, due to grazing, conversion of rangeland to crops and non-native forage, and energy development, among other things.
The chicken's rangewide population declined by an estimated 50 percent in 2012 to the current estimated population of 17,616 birds today, according to the service.
If these efforts fail to prevent Fish and Wildlife from listing the bird, it won't be because of a lack of effort by state regulators and other stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry.
Five large oil and gas companies in late January agreed to become the first to enroll in the WAFWA rangewide conservation plan.
The five companies agreed to avoid and minimize impacts to the bird by forgoing operations during the chicken's early-morning breeding hours and staying more than a mile away from breeding grounds, among other steps. For impacts that cannot be avoided, the companies agreed to pay mitigation fees that will fund conservation and restoration steps on private lands, including removing brush and trees -- since chickens are intolerant of tall structures -- modifying grazing practices and conducting prescribed burns (Greenwire, Jan. 31).
While separate from the CCAA that Fish and Wildlife announced Friday, the conditions the companies agreed to follow in the rangewide conservation plan are similar. Thus, those companies and others that have committed to conservation measures through WAFWA should be automatically enrolled in the new CCAA, said Amelia Orton-Palmer, a FWS biologist with the agency's Mountain-Prairie Region in Denver.
"The primary purpose of the CCAA is always to conserve the species and provide additional conservation to the species," with the goal of avoiding an ESA listing, Orton-Palmer said.
Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), today praised the new CCAA, calling it a big step toward potentially avoiding a federal listing. "Farmers, ranchers, energy companies, and landowners can work together with state wildlife agencies to preserve habitat and protect the Lesser Prairie Chicken, without federal intervention," he said in a statement.
But not everyone agrees that the CCAA and other efforts by Fish and Wildlife and WAFWA are enough to keep the lesser prairie chicken from a threatened listing.
Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., said the CCAA protects too little habitat to make a meaningful difference.
"It's too little, too late, because it locks chickens into little postage-stamp areas of habitat that aren't big enough to support breeding populations," Lininger said.
He added: "Under this agreement, an oil and gas company that voluntarily participates might pay a little money to kill a few birds, and WAFWA will spend the money to secure habitat elsewhere. This shell game won't get traction fast enough to recover lesser prairie chickens from the brink of extinction."