The US Fish and Wildlife Service is slated to make a decision on whether to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken (LPC) under the Endangered Species Act at the end of March. This pending decision has caused substantial discussion on how to balance economic development and habitat conservation, with people on both sides of the listing decision strongly debating application of the Endangered Species Act on private land.
Amidst the regulatory chatter, private landowners have valiantly stepped up and enrolled a record amount of acres across the LPC’s five state range in a wide array of conservation programs. This has required unprecedented landscape scale conservation efforts with the collaboration of state agencies, the federal government, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners at the epicenter. According to Bill Van Pelt, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Grassland Coordinator, “[w]hen you consider all acreage enrolled in the Range-wide Plan, plus various CCAAs, Farm Bill programs and other conservation programs across the LPC’s range, the total area is about the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. This is also approximately half the size of the species’ current range…”
The Range-wide Plan, created by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), encourages enrollment in the numerous voluntary conservation programs that aid private landowners in LPC habitat conservation. It also includes a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for industry that specifically aims to balance economic development and LPC habitat conservation. This CCAA requires that enrolled companies pay enrollment fees, follow guidelines to minimize impacts from development, and pay for farmers and ranchers to protect and restore habitat to mitigate impacts that cannot be avoided. In exchange, the companies receive a permit that allows them to continue their operations if the LPC is listed. Currently, 3.9 million industry acres have been enrolled in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, resulting in $21 million for conservation for the first three years. Enrollees include 18 electric transmission companies, 8 oil and gas companies, 2 wind energy developments, and one natural gas pipeline. When enrollment closed on February 28, 24 landowners owning more than 330,000 acres were identified as eligible to receive mitigation payments to restore and protect LPC habitat. WAFWA will continue to accept applications through 2015 and aid private landowners in creating LPC habitat management plans for farm and ranchlands. Even though additional landowners will not receive payments, if they create management plans to conserver LPC habitat they may be exempted from Endangered Species Act requirements.
Other states and organizations have developed Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs) and CCAAs to foster LPC habitat conservation and provide regulatory assurances to proactive landowners. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department enrolled 84 ranchers to protect and restore 614,250 acres of LPC habitat through their CCAA. A CCA in New Mexico created by the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management enrolled 29 oil and gas companies with 815,890 acres and 39 private landowners with 1,523,573 acres. Also, over 200,000 acres of agricultural and ranch land was enrolled in CCAAs in Oklahoma. These CCAAs show collaboration to facilitate conservation among oil and gas developers, the livestock industry, and private landowners.
New Mexico is the home of the first LPC habitat stronghold, which was created through an elaborate public private partnership between the BLM, the FWS, the State of New Mexico, The Conservation Fund, local partners, private foundations and private landowners. This project utilized Land and Water Conservation Funds to acquire approximately 58,000 acres of critical habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken and dunes sagebrush lizard to be preserved in perpetuity.
The Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) have also been integral players in LPC habitat conservation across the five-state range. The NRCS’s Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative has conserved 942,572 acres of habitat through 701 contracts with landowners. Through enrollment across all NRCS programs, 1,259,612 acres have been managed to restore and conserve LPC habitat with techniques such as prescribed grazing, upland wildlife habitat management, and brush management. The FSA’s Conservation Reserve Program has maintained over 5.8 million acres in conservation within the LPC Range since 1998. Since 2003, over 190,000 acres of CRP have been treated with prescribed burning and nearly 470,000 acres have received upland wildlife habitat management in the LPC range.
Finally, state initiatives have been created to aid private landowners in conserving LPC habitat. The State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement program conserved 214,000 acres through five LPC SAFE projects (21,500 acres in Colorado, 52,100 acres in Kansas, 2,600 acres in New Mexico, 15,100 acres in Oklahoma and 122,700 acres in Texas). The Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Improvement Program in Colorado conserved more than 11,212 acres and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department enrolled more than 15,000 acres through the Landowner Incentive Program.
With all the programs and organizations that have been involved in LPC habitat conservation there has been no shortage of options for private landowners. However, navigating through the regulatory process and program applications can be rigorous and daunting. That is why RFF has created the Critical Habitat Management Portal, which outlines the options and programs available for LPC habitat conservation, and can put you in contact with the conservation professionals in your area. Even if you have already taken steps to manage your land for the LPC, check back in soon, as RFF will be adding additional species, such as the Sage Grouse.