LOVINGTON — Is it déjà vu all over again?
With about 10 times as many lesser prairie chickens in New Mexico today than seven years ago, Lea County officials believe federally approved public and private conservation efforts are working well enough.
Yet, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 2014 applauded local efforts to protect the grouse, recently proposed to list two population segments of the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended.
Such a listing would cost millions of dollars to oil and gas companies, ranchers, the renewable energy industries and other industries, according to reports at that time.
A frustrated Lea County Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Long said, “We’ve already gone through this once in our recent past history, and here we go again.”
Long addressed her fellow commissioners and attendees at Thursday’s regular meeting of the commission in advance of a unanimous vote to approve a resolution opposing the federal agency’s plans. The resolution states the listing “is not necessary to protect the lesser prairie chicken and such listing would negatively impact the use of land and resources in Lea County.”
Habitat for the lesser prairie chicken covers parts of New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma. In New Mexico, the bird’s range includes parts of Lea, Roosevelt, Curry, Quay, Chaves and Eddy counties.
Many of those government entities entered into a lawsuit in 2014 against the federal government after the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird under the Endangered Species Act. The Service removed the chicken from the threatened and endangered species list in 2016 following court rulings in Texas and an agreement by government lawyers not to pursue an appeal.
Later that year, a coalition of environmentalist groups petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to reinstate the listing, based on information that the bird’s population continued to decline in spite of conservation efforts. The groups argued that key populations are in danger of extinction as climate change exacerbates problems caused by energy development, farming and other infrastructure such as roads and power lines.
Appearing before the county commission Thursday, Whit Storey, Carlsbad-based conservation project manager for the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management (CEHMM), reported successes of programs called Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCA) and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA).
The Fish and Wildlife Service had identified CEHMM as the permit holder for the CCA and CCAA programs, with CCAs applying to federal minerals and lands and CCAAs applying to non-federal minerals and lands, i.e., private or state properties.
Storey reminded the commission the agreements concept was fully executed in 2008, with the first industry and landowner enrollments occurring in 2010.
“Since then, we’ve had 42 oil and gas operators actively participate in the agreements,” Storey said. “Give or take 100,000 acres, there’s about two million acres of mineral enrollments that we currently have in both of the programs and about 1.8 million acres of actual surface land that we have enrolled with 73 ranchers. We’re getting more enrolled now with this proposed listing coming up.”
The agreements involve the industry or landowners taking responsibility for conserving habitat for both the lesser prairie chicken and, where appropriate, the dune sagebrush lizard, another species the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to add to the Endangered Species Act listing.
The commission also approved a resolution on Thursday opposing the lizard listing.
Storey explained the first benefit to landowners or companies enrolling in a CCA or CCAA is the agreements’ voluntary nature.
“If the conservation measures that you agree to implement don’t work for you for whatever reason, you can choose to opt out at any time as a landowner or an oil and gas operator,” Storey said.
The second benefit, Storey told the commissioners, is reduced red tape.
“Because you’re already implementing the conservation that the Fish and Wildlife Service would be asking you to do through the Center of Excellence or Candidates permit,” Storey said, “you’re saving time, you’re saving money, by not having to wait between five, six or seven months, maybe even a year to get the Service to authorize a permit.”
Meanwhile, the agreements offer benefits to the birds, Storey said, with a quantified 15,000 acres restored and restoration of an unquantifiable number of acres of habitat “by helping landowners with the funds that oil and gas donate to the program to build infrastructure on their ranches to allow them to implement grazing management practices that allow them to manage more lesser prairie chicken habitat without having to reduce stocking rate, without having to worry about anything else like that.”
Other conservation improvements have been simply establishing a different rotational pattern and putting water troughs where cattle can access different areas of the pasture, prevent over grazing that may have occurred in other areas, Storey said.
“We’ve removed windmills and converted them to solar-powered wells, which is a more efficient way to extract water, especially in the summertime when it’s not windy anymore,” Storey continued. Vertical structures, such as windmills and wind farm turbines, tend to frighten the lesser prairie chickens out of their habitats.
County Commissioner Pat Sims cut to the chase, “How are the prairie chicken numbers now?”
Storey responded, “They went down this year. Probably, I’d say, about 30 percent. We had an amazing number last year. I don’t know, with the drought and everything, but we had an estimated 9,000 birds around the state. This year, I want to say between 5,000-6,000. It’s a lot better than 2014 when we had an estimated 600 in the state.”
Sims pressured Storey for detail about what number of birds the Fish and Wildlife Service and environmentalists established to define an endangered species.
“There’s not a defined number that I know of,” Storey replied.
Chairwoman Long sought confirmation that the CEHMM programs are voluntary, to which Storey strongly answered in the affirmative.
“A guy was on the radio the other day and saying if you are in one of these CCA’s they are going to come onto your land whether you want them to or not,” Long said.
“That’s completely false. My staff is expected to call the landowners,” Story said. “We’re very informative of our actions, what we’re going to be doing out on the land to make sure we’re not getting in your way when you’re branding and gathering. We’re very respectful, sit down and have cups of coffee.”
The program manager encouraged county officials to refer to him or the CEHMM office any ranchers or other business owners interested in the agreements, whether or not the lesser prairie chicken returns to the Endangered Species Act listing.