Lesser prairie chickens once numbered in the thousands throughout the American West, thriving on the prairielands of eastern New Mexico and the American West.
But in recent years, the chicken’s numbers declined amid growing development in the oil and gas and agriculture sectors throughout the region and conservationists worried the unique bird could be in danger of extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed federal protections for the species last year under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), seeking an endangered listing for the bird in southeast New Mexico and West Texas and a threatened listing in the rest of the animal’s range which extends through Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
A species is considered “endangered” by the agency when its extinction is believed imminent, while “threatened” means the animal could soon warrant endangered status.
Both statuses results in the federal government developing a recovery plan and setting aside acreage deemed “critical habitat” of the species at risk.
A final decision on the lesser prairie chicken’s listing was expected this month, records show, and it could restrict access to lands needed for the chicken’s recovery and impact some of New Mexico’s biggest industries.
That’s why conservation bank Lesser prairie chickens (LPC) Conservation proposed a habitat conservation plan (HPC) for the oil and gas industry which was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service June 3.
It would allow oil and gas operations to occur within areas where the chicken could dwell.
Energy companies buy protections from the conservation bank for the areas known as “strongholds,” while conducting certain conservation practices on the lands amid their operations, and in exchange are exempted from future restrictions should the species ultimately be listed.
They receive a permit for “incidental take” which refers to a number of birds that are allowed to be killed during development.
The intention said LPC Conservation Chief Executive Officer Wayne Walker, is to save the animal in danger of dying out while also allowing essential economic drivers to continue.
That balance, he said, is essential as it enlists the help of companies that hold large swaths of land to protect the local environment.
“We believe using a market-based business model is the best way to secure the desired outcomes for all involved to finally deliver quantifiable conservation benefits to the LPC,” he said. “The species is a key indicator of the health of the southern Great Plains. LPC Conservation offers a legally defensible permit that should be of interest to this industry.”
‘Offsetting’ impacts to oil and gas while saving the chicken
In a statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency contended enrollees in the plan would be able to avoid future regulatory shifts while helping to conserve the bird.
“LPC Conservation LLC’s HCP will fully offset impacts from enrolled projects while providing regulatory certainty for oil and gas development across its range, should the lesser prairie-chicken become listed under the ESA in the future,” read the statement.
The Service also published an environmental assessment in May that showed take permits would impact up to 500,000 acres of chicken habitat in all five states – 200,000 acres in the southern population segment in New Mexico and Texas and 300,000 acres in the northern population.
When implemented, the Service estimate the plan would lead to the restoration and continued management of up to a million acres of chicken habitat.
This would have “no significant impact” on the environment or human activity, per a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and no further analysis was needed.
“For more than two decades, we have prioritized efforts with our partners to employ all available tools to facilitate the conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken,” the statement read. “Working with others is essential to protecting ecosystems that benefit wildlife and economies.”
Locally, Carlsbad-based conservation non-profit CEHMM (The Center for Excellence) reported it undertook several of its own projects to protect the lesser prairie chicken in early 2022.
CEHMM offers conservation agreements also approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service for private and public lands.
Similar to the HCP, the agreements see enrollees agreeing to conservation practices to avoid future regulatory burdens if a listing is approved.
CEHMM reported it did not yet find any leks, or prairie chicken breeding grounds, during a week-long survey conducted March 23, per its report for the first quarter of 2022 published last month.
Several projects were completed by CEHMM this year, per the report, to improve chicken habitats.
The oil and gas industry so far enrolled 508,737 acres within the bird’s occupied range in New Mexico in CEHMM’s program, per the report, while 891,293 acres were enrolled by ranchers and another 348,551 acres were enrolled by the New Mexico State Land Office.
That means about 1.2 million acres were enrolled in total, just more than half of the 2.1 million acres CHEMM identified as the bird’s occupied range.
Johnathan Hayes, executive director of the southwest region for the Audubon Society said that effort to conserve the bird while protecting local industry was crucial to ensure local communities are impacted as little as possible by government decision-making.
He said the Society supports the chicken’s listing, but hopes plans like LPC Conservation’s and others will provide economic support amid conservation efforts.
“The listing decision is the right way to go, but we’re recognizing that that does have a cost,” Hayes said. “We want to make sure the negative impact that happens to industry, that we’re allowing industry to have some ability to predict what those regulations will be and what that impact will be.”
Hayes said work to save the bird could also restore the land and ecosystem, supporting the broader environment from human impacts to climate change.
“Birds are the canary in the coalmine. This is a good example of us seeing the loss of suitable habitat that is driving the decline of these birds is absolutely an impact we’ve had on the landscape, the climate,” he said.
“This isn’t just about the bird.”