When we proposed listing the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in December 2012, we estimated the population to be less than 45,000 birds range-wide. The states conducted a range-wide aerial survey this spring and estimated the population at approximately 18,000 birds, a decline no doubt related to the extended drought in the southern Great Plains.
Clearly, this is a species in trouble that needs help.
The state fish and wildlife agencies have stepped up to the task, working together through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. They have now completed the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan, and we are pleased to endorse it.
We have reviewed this landmark, collaborative planning effort of WAFWA and the five range states of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, and we believe it provides a sound conservation strategy for the prairie-chicken. When implemented, the plan will both benefit the species and provide a cooperative model for conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken that is compatible with the economic well-being of the ranchers and other landowners that control most of its habitat.
|The population of lesser prairie-chickens has fallen sharply. Credit: NRCS|
With the majority of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat on private lands, conservation of the species will require the voluntary assistance of private landowners. For that to happen, we all need to work together to ensure conservation and the economic well-being of ranchers and landowners across the species’ range.
To facilitate that cooperative management model, we will soon propose a special rule to establish that, even if we have to list this bird under the ESA, actions associated with implementing this range-wide plan will be in compliance with the act. This means that landowners and project proponents will not have to seek ESA permits on an individual basis, potentially streamlining their ESA compliance time and costs.
Doing so will provide participating landowners and companies the regulatory certainty they desire, while ensuring that management and development activities are carried out in way that protects the prairie-chicken.
The prairie-chicken’s decline tells us that native grasslands are in trouble. By helping the lesser prairie-chicken, we also restore the health of our native grasslands, which support local economies and communities in addition to migratory birds and other wildlife.
The Service’s endorsement of the range-wide plan is not a decision by the Service that implementing the plan will preclude the need to protect the lesser prairie-chicken under the act. The Service will carefully consider the plan, its implementation and its effectiveness – as well as a host of other factors – when it does make a final determination on whether to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the ESA in March 2014.
It’s not just WAFWA and the states working for the lesser prairie-chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are also working with private landowners to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. NRCS’ Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and Farm Bill programs have provided funding that has resulted in millions of acres of habitat improvements and protection across most of the range of the lesser prairie-chicken.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan is definitely a step in the right direction. We are happy to work with WAFWA, the states and others to preserve the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat.