By Jim Steiert
Results of a helicopter survey to assess lesser prairie chicken populations across five states lend optimism that listing the grouse as an Endangered Species can be averted. Listing could hurt ranching, farming, oil, gas, wind energy, and conservation interests.
The survey of the southwest Texas Panhandle and portions of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas found previously unknown prairie chicken booming grounds known as leks. In Kansas leks were beyond the previously presumed northern perimeter of historic range.
The survey of over 300,000 square miles will produce the first statistically valid five-state estimate of lek and prairie chicken numbers.
Sean Kyle, chairman of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group and a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist, is optimistic over preliminary survey findings.
"Surveys will be the basis of a range-wide management plan for lesser prairie chickens in the five states, in collaboration with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Grassland Initiative. The plan could help to avoid the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designating the lesser prairie chicken as federally threatened or endangered," says Kyle.
Native to the Southern High Plains, the lesser prairie chicken has been an Endangered Species listing candidate since 1995, primarily due to habitat loss. The Fish and Wildlife Service will release a proposed rule on status of the bird for public comment as early as August.
State fish and wildlife agencies will use survey results as baseline data to monitor prairie chicken population trends and target conservation efforts in partnership with private landowners, oil and gas, wind energy and electrical industry and conservation groups.
Diverse interests agree listing the prairie chicken would hurt conservation, and business. Organizations working on the prairie chicken issue include The Nature Conservancy, the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and the Panhandle Producers and Royalty Owners Association, representing oil and gas.
Landowners and industries are hopeful due to a recent decision. The Fish and Wildlife Service in June opted not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard, based on scientific data and voluntary industry and landowner efforts that preserved habitat in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico.
"The dunes sagebrush lizard wasn't listed because 70% of its range was enrolled in voluntary conservation plans. We hope for similar results for the lesser prairie chicken. All five states are working on a common range wide voluntary conservation plan. Plans, called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, prescribe practices to improve chances for a prairie chicken rebound such as managed grazing and brush control. Regulatory assurances to landowners mean if the prairie chicken is listed, landowners can continue to follow practices in the plan, not more restrictive regulations a listing might prescribe.
"Plans run 20 years and are renewable. We've got about 300,000 acres enrolled in Texas. We have a long way to go, but plan to have enough acres to impact the final rule," said Kyle.
Texas counties eligible for CCAA include Deaf Smith, Parmer, Oldham, Bailey, Lamb, Cochran, Hockley, Yoakum, Terry, Andrews, and Gaines.
Details on CCAA in Texas can be obtained from TPWD Biologist Jeff Bonner in Canyon at 806-655-3494 or Manuel DeLeon with the USDA Zone Office in Lubbock at 806-791-0581.