Debate over federal action to prevent the extinction of a small, desert bird in New Mexico saw oil and gas industry leaders in opposition as they argued the efforts could stymie operations.
Environmental groups contended listing the lesser prairie chicken as endangered under the Endangered Species Act was a needed move to prevent it from dying out.
Public comments by both sides were recently filed in the Federal Register as the federal government considered the listing and the public comment period closed Sept. 1.
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) initially proposed in May to protect the chicken in two distinct population segments (DPS): the southern DPS encompassing eastern New Mexico and the southwest Texas panhandle and the northern DPS in southeastern Colorado, southern Kansas, western Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle.
The southern DPS was proposed for an endangered listing, the highest class of listing indicating extinction is imminent, while the northern DPS was proposed for a threatened listing which means the DPS’ status could soon worsen to meet endangered criteria.
The chicken is known for its distinct mating dances and once populated New Mexico and western states by the hundreds of thousands.
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It requires wide open prairie for its range, avoiding tall structures predators could use.
Advocates for its conservation pointed to industrial development like extraction operations and the resulting pollution and habitat fragmentation as major threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s survival.
Aerial survey data from the Fish and Wildlife Service between 2016 and 2020 found the chicken’s average population at about 28,000 birds across the five-state region while the animal’s habitat shrunk by 90 percent from its historic range.
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In public comments filed Sept. 1, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) argued its members – oil and gas companies throughout New Mexico – already took on conservation efforts aimed at protecting the bird and that further federal action was not warranted.
Such work was done via local agreements certified by the Fish and Wildlife Services where land users commit to certain conservation practices ahead of listing to avoid further restrictions should a listing be enacted.
“Here in New Mexico, as well as across the lesser prairie chicken (LEPC) range, FWS has seen unprecedented conservation LEPC by NMOGA membership and the oil and gas industry as a whole in both local and range-wide conservation plans,” read the comments.
“The oil and gas industry’s conservation efforts, made in partnership with private landowners, work and are stabilizing and rebounding LEPC populations.”
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Other oil and gas industry trade groups the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and the Western Energy Alliance made similar arguments that ongoing efforts to prevent the chicken’s extinction were sufficient and increased federal regulation would harm the industry.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish in its Aug. 24 comments pointed to the agency’s previous work with landowners and the New Mexico State Game Commission.
The agency reported in New Mexico a total of 1.9 million acres was being used to conserve the bird six counties in eastern and southeastern New Mexico, and that bird populations remained “stable” despite habitat loss.
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Carlsbad-based conservation non-profit the Center for Excellence (CEHMM) reported in its Sept. 1 comments that populations saw an upward trend in New Mexico since 2015 when a population of 1,125 birds in the southern DPS was reported compared with 7,125 in 2020.
CEHMM facilitates conservation plans with landowners, and Executive Director Emily Wirth wrote that the organization developed a five-year strategic plan that will restore 15,000 to 30,000 acres of habitat between 2021 and 2025.
Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians in its Sept. 1 public comments argued a third DPS within the northern DPS should be created and listed as endangered or the Fish and Wildlife Service should list both its southern and northern ranges for the highest restrictions.
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The group argued recent population increases were insufficient to prevent extinction of the bird as it was vulnerable to climate change, drought and other impacts to its habitat.
“Even presuming the impact of the voluntary conservation measures has some influence on the overall lesser prairie chicken population overall, the minimal increase is not meaningful to prevent extinction level events in specific populations,” the comments read.
“The lesser prairie chicken has low resiliency across its entire range, requiring substantial numbers in each and every ecosystem to prevent the entire population from being wiped out by a single year of extreme drought or other weather event.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.