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Lea opposes endangered prairie chicken listing

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Curtis C. Wynne/News-Sun

LOVINGTON – Charging a federal agency with making “the narrative fit the desired outcome,” the Lea County Commission on Thursday took issue with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The FWS recently issued a final rule listing the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, effective on March 27.

After hearing former U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell’s plea for a coordinated communication system to ensure better information dissemination, the commissioners approved a resolution opposing the prairie chicken listing and suggesting the FWS return to the drawing board.

“It’s crazy because in New Mexico and Texas it’s going to be ‘endangered,’” Herrell told the commissioners. “In Kansas and Oklahoma, it’s going to be ‘threatened.’ Unfortunately, the New Mexico (Congressional) delegation is silent on this issue.”

Commissioner Pat Sims owns land in southern Lea County he said had been established as a protected habitat in an agreement approved a decade ago. He noted his proposal for a breeding farm was summarily dismissed.

Indicating a map on display, Sims said, “The bottom green dot in Lea County is my prairie chicken colony and it hasn’t had a live bird in 20 years.”

Noting his doubts whether the FWS will honor agreements made the last time the lesser prairie chicken was considered for listing, Sims said, “I am suspicious. I think the people who are pushing this are not worried about the little bird. They’re more interested in shutting down the oil industry and agriculture, too.”

Herrell agreed.

“This is going to happen in two weeks and we don’t even know what the new maps look like,” Herrell said.

While noting the land under agreements that stopped the previous effort to list the bird should be exempted, Herrell said she doesn’t know whether they will.

“To me, they’re not ready to do this,” Herrell adding her effort to develop a communication network goes beyond the issue of this bird. “The prairie chicken is taking up all their time right now, but it could be the lizard. The butterfly is coming. That’s going to hit the western counties.”

Herrell hopes to identify a central person in affected counties to receive notifications of new bills, proposed rules and deadlines for comment, establishing a communication network.

“(The prairie chicken listing) is a direct hit on oil and gas, and farming and ranching,” Herrell said. “We have to have a mechanism in place so we can make sure the county commissioners, the stakeholders, know the bills that are being brought forward. I think there’s safety in numbers, but also information.

“Knowledge is power.”

Herrell and Commission Chairman Dean Jackson pointed out the public needs to be made more aware of adverse policies.

“People don’t understand. This isn’t the first and last issue we’re going to see,” Herrell said. “Regardless of who’s in the White House, regardless of who’s in the Round House, we’re still going to have issues that are impacting our community and our great state.”

Jackson added, “It’s very important to Lea County and the whole State of New Mexico. We have to fight Santa Fe just as hard as we fight Washington.”

Back to the lesser prairie chicken, Sims concluded, “As a landowner and an outdoorsman, this has been over a decade of squabbling with the federal government. I don’t think any of the landowners are against the birds. It’s Uncle Sam trying to cut down on our bottom line. I think it’s more of a power fight than it is about saving cute little feathery birds.”

The unanimously approved commission resolution noted the FWS decision to divide the bird’s habitat into two segments resulted from unscientific suppositions, that studies showing the population actually increased from 1997 to 2012 were ignored, and that only studies that supported a desire to list the bird were used.

The commission challenged the FWS to “reconsider the theory of two Distinct Population Segments taking all information into account and properly determining the validity of all surveys, studies, and other information, to arrive at a conclusion, rather than making the narrative fit the desired outcome.”

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