Plan to prevent lesser prairie chicken listing released

Oct 4, 2013

The threat of upland birds being listed on the Endangered Species List is a constant refrain for those in western states. But with the lesser prairie chicken, like so many others, efforts exist to both protect the birds and ranchers.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA)—a quasi-governmental coalition of different state wildlife agencies—released the fourth and final draft of its conservation plan for the lesser prairie chicken in five states. It was submitted at the end of September to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for consideration.

The plan seeks to involve private land owners in voluntary conservation activities to prevent the bird from being listed as threatened according to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The bird was recommended for ESA protection in 1995. USFWS agreed that evidence supported listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened, but at the time chose not to given higher priority species. At the time it was given a listing priority number of 8 (on a scale of 1-12, 1 being most pressing) which has since been revised up to 2 in 2009.

Much like the potential listing of the greater sage grouse, the listing of lesser prairie chicken could significantly impact ranchers operating in what could be designated its critical habitat.

According to the proposed plan, the birds’ traditional range extended in a northsouth column in the center of the South Plains, including portions of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Current habitat consists of small islands of populations scattered across those states. See map below.

In addition to potentially helping the birds, participation in the plan also provides for the potential of protecting farmers and ranchers against incidental take in the event of the birds being listed. This would fall under the 4(d) rule of the ESA.

“The 4(d) rule would provide the regulatory relief otherwise obtainable only through permits,” read the plan. “This approach would allow for a seamless transition from a prelisting voluntary document to a post-listing framework for industry activities and [lesser prairie chicken] conservation.”

The plan acknowledged the group’s opinion that there is “significant evidence to support a ‘not warranted’ listing decision” for the lesser prairie chicken, but also stressed the need to be flexible to that possibility.

Bill Van Pelt, grassland coordinator for WAFWA, said the main benefits of participation in the plan for farmers and ranchers is to prevent the lesser prairie chicken from being listed and, if it is listed, protect them in instances of incidental take.

We’re asking people to manage their properties in a way to provide habitat for the lesser prairie chicken,” he said. “We have a means by which we could work with willing land owners and pay them to do that.”

The plan identifies livestock grazing as a potential threat to lesser prairie chicken, largely in its role of reducing native prairie grass cover below optimum nesting and brooding needs of the birds. Grazing and range management activities which shift the coverage from one favoring grasses to one favoring shrubs, brush, and trees is another potential threat.

The plan notes however the grazing can also be a benefit if managed with the birds in mind. Grazing in brooding areas can help reduce excessive grass densities which impede chick movement. Grazing management which targets certain grass, shrub and brush species detrimental to lesser prairie chicken habitat needs are beneficial and can improve habitat for the birds.

Other identified threats included oil and natural gas exploration and extraction, fences which can serve as roosts for predatory hawks, cars, and wind energy activities. This latter one is a concern given the heavy overlap of lesser prairie chicken habitat with suitable sites for wind energy.

The report did note however that empirical data on relationships and harm to the birds as a direct result of wind energy activities was lacking.

Van Pelt pointed out the more land owners who participate in the proposed plan will help strengthen the case that listing of the lesser prairie chicken is unnecessary.

“One of the things we’re looking to do is preclude the need to list.”

The entire plan, as well as its preceding drafts, can be read online at wafwa. org/html/rangewide_lpc_ conservation_plan.shtml. The PDF document is over 300 pages and may be slow to load. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor