The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) is encouraging oil and gas companies to enroll oil and gas leases and pipelines in a voluntary program to help conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Because of a Sept. 1, 2015, federal court decision that vacated protection of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, WAFWA's Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances is now open for new enrollments of oil and gas leases and pipelines.
The Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances provides industry with predictability for their operations should the lesser prairie-chicken again be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The bird was listed as threatened in May 2014, but the court decision reversed that protection. Because of that decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved new enrollments by companies operating within the five range states of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas. The companies are required to implement conservation benefits for lesser prairie-chickens and pay enrollment and impact fees for unavoidable impacts, which allow the companies to continue oil and gas production, while contributing to conserving lesser prairie-chicken habitat.
"Since this program began in 2014, more than 180 oil, gas, wind, electric and pipeline companies have enrolled about 11 million acres across the five states, and have committed $47.5 million for habitat conservation," said Sean Kyle, WAFWA's industry services director. "We've had great support for this program, and we encourage all companies not currently participating to take advantage of this enrollment opportunity."
WAFWA officials do not know how long this new opportunity will be available. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked a federal judge to reconsider the Sept. 1 decision, and depending on the outcome, the new enrollment period could end. Because of the uncertainty, WAFWA encourages all interested companies to enroll as soon as possible.
WAFWA's Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan and the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances were developed by state wildlife agency experts in 2013 with input from a wide variety of stakeholders. The Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances is one piece of a comprehensive range-wide plan designed to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken.
"Our long-term goal is conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken, regardless of its Endangered Species Act status," said Alexa Sandoval, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and chairman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. "Since the Sept. 1 decision to vacate the listing, we have pursued conservation efforts under the range-wide plan with the same vigor as we did before. We're pleased to report that our landowner and industry partners are equally committed to continued conservation efforts."
WAFWA has enrolled more than 96,000 acres of farm and ranch land to offset industry development over the last year and a half. In addition, WAFWA has acquired 1,600 acres in permanent conservation and contracted for 8,900 acres of habitat restoration, which will create new habitat for the species.
An abundance of spring rainfall, along with ongoing efforts associated with the range-wide plan and other conservation initiatives, has helped increase the population of birds by about 25 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to results from the 2015 range-wide aerial survey. Despite this encouraging news, the population is still low compared to historical numbers, and the threats to the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat still exist. WAFWA is committed to continued successful implementation of the range-wide plan and the long-term recovery of this iconic grassland bird.