ENDANGERED SPECIES

States fire head of crucial prairie chicken program

Even as a federal district judge yesterday rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service's request to reinstate federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken, state wildlife regulators fired the man in charge of the plan the judge had instead favored to recover the imperiled bird.

Until yesterday, Cal Baca was the lesser prairie chicken program manager at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a coalition of regulators from 23 states and Canadian provinces that created a rangewide plan meant to prevent the need to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

After FWS added the prairie chicken to the threatened species list in 2014, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and a handful of oil-rich New Mexico counties challenged the decision. They argued that FWS should have given the states' rangewide plan more time to work before listing the species.

Last year, Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas agreed with the challenge led by the oil trade group, vacating the agency's listing decision. Then yesterday, he rejected a request by FWS to reinstate federal protections for the bird (E&ENews PM, Feb. 29).

Baca's main responsibility at WAFWA was implementing the rangewide plan that Junell concluded could recover the species without the need for federal protections. His termination on the day that the courts made it unlikely the prairie chicken will receive federal protections anytime soon suggested to some observers that the states are no longer interested in following their plan to recover the species.

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"It's not a good omen," said one so-called mitigation banker, who has closely followed the prairie chicken issue. He spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid negative attention to his company, which preserves habitat for protected species and sells conservation credits to developers that harm listed animals.

At the very least, he added, the WAFWA's move creates additional uncertainty for bankers with prairie chicken credits to sell and landowners, who are working to protect the bird's vanishing habitat.

The exact reason for Baca's dismissal remains unclear.

In a brief phone interview, he told Greenwire, "I don't think I'm at liberty to discuss that right now."

An email sent out to WAFWA staff around noon yesterday said only that "effective immediately, Cal Baca is no longer an employee of WAFWA and, therefore, no longer holds the position of the [lesser prairie chicken] Program Manager. ... While the LPC Program Manager position is vacant, Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA's Grassland Initiative Coordinator, will be the main point of contact regarding the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Rangewide Plan."

The decision to fire Baca was made by the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council, a body that includes state wildlife regulators in the bird's five-state range and one at-large member.

Alexa Sandoval, the director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and chairwoman of the council, declined to discuss the reasoning behind the decision but emphasized that it was unrelated to the district court ruling.

"Regarding the timing of it, it is purely coincidental, has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the court ruling came out today," she said yesterday. "We had no way of knowing when that ruling was going to be let by the courts. One does not have to do with the other at all."

Sandoval also argued that Baca's firing should not be interpreted as a sign that WAFWA is reconsidering its promise to conserve prairie chicken habitat and implement its rangewide plan.

"People will see what they want to see," she said. "But the reality is, WAFWA and the initiative council and all of the staff of WAFWA are 110 percent committed to the program."

Conservationists who have been closely following the states' recovery effort suggested the move could be related to the poor performance of the plan so far.

"I don't actually know anything about the firing itself," Don Barry, senior vice president of the conservation program at Defenders of Wildlife, said in an interview. But he added, "Given the long list of problems that were enumerated in [FWS Director] Dan Ashe's letter, I guess I'm not surprised to hear that that's happened."

Barry was referring to a memo Ashe sent to WAFWA in December raising concerns about the transparency of the states' recovery effort.

Ashe wrote that because WAFWA has still not created a database to track affected land and corresponding mitigation efforts, "the Service is unable to determine that the [rangewide plan] is offsetting the impacts to lesser prairie-chickens." He also criticized WAFWA's annual report for containing "limited financial information" about which companies have paid to offset which actions that harm chickens (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

In a statement released after the court ruling, WAFWA said it has enrolled over 101,000 acres of farm and ranch land in 10-year conservation agreements and has acquired an additional 1,600 acres in permanent conservation to offset industry impacts since the implementation of the rangewide plan. WAFWA said it has also restored 8,215 acres of prairie chicken habitat.

Barry and other conservationists, however, remain unimpressed by the progress of the plan, given the scale of the challenge. Prairie chickens today survive on 12 percent of their historic range, according to FWS, and require intact parcels of native grassland and shrubland in excess of 20,000 acres to maintain self-sustaining populations.

"Dan and the Fish and Wildlife Service have relied heavily on the states' saying they were going to execute a rangewide plan, and large components of that plan appear actually to have not gotten off the ground," Barry said. "So I think this plan is sort of like a self-inflicted wound. They've set their own hair on fire, and they're trying to put it out with an ax."

Twitter: @corbinhiar Email: chiar@eenews.net

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