Lesser Prairie Chicken
Lesser Prairie Chicken

AUSTIN – Eighty-four Texas ranchers in the Panhandle and Rolling Plains have voluntarily enrolled 614,250 acres in conservation agreements for the lesser prairie-chicken, marking the largest private landowner commitment to conserve a rare species in Texas history. 

This comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mulls whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act, a decision expected by March 31.

Back in November 2006, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department signed a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the federal wildlife agency. At the time, the bird was a candidate for listing. Yet for several years after the agreement was developed, few landowners signed on. 

Then, after the USFWS proposed listing the bird as threatened in late 2012, enrollment surged.

By undertaking voluntary conservation measures on their property under the agreement, landowners are assured that no further land use restrictions or conditions will be required from them if the lesser prairie-chicken is ultimately listed. In return, landowners undertake conservation actions such as brush control, grazing management, prescribed burning, and allowing periodic monitoring on their property.

“Prairie-chicken conservation equals grassland conservation,” said Calvin Richardson, TPWD Wildlife Division district leader, based in Canyon.  “Landowners who provide good habitat for this bird are helping many other grassland-dependent species, such as pronghorn antelope and many grassland birds.  Further, prairie conservation equals water conservation.  Restoring and managing the native grasslands of the Texas Panhandle, including regions with Playa Lakes, can help provide vital recharge sources for the Ogallala Aquifer.”   

Department biologists also said the improvement in rangeland health that results from CCAA management also benefits cattle operations with conservative stocking rates that ensure good plant health, productivity, and a cushion in an unpredictable weather environment.

Texas' acreage joins the nearly 4 million acres of land and $15 million in funding added to the bird’s range-wide conservation efforts, according to information released last week by officials with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA).

“Under the range-wide plan, a broad coalition of government, industry, agriculture and conservation interests is demonstrating unprecedented collaboration, showing we can take care of this bird and its prairie habitat without needing to list it,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator.

Across the five states of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas, the companies have now enrolled 2.5 million acres of land in the conservation plan, adding to the 1.3 million acres already enrolled by oil companies in New Mexico. 

The companies represent oil and gas, pipelines, electric transmission and wind energy, and result in nearly $15 million for habitat conservation during the next three years. 

Range-wide plan enrollment now includes 14 electric transmission companies, representing most of the electric grid across the species’ range in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Also, eight oil and gas companies have enrolled more than two million acres across all five states. And, two wind energy developments and one natural gas pipeline company have signed on, with more in the process of enrollment.

On Feb. 28, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had signed a Range-wide Oil and Gas Industry Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the western association. The service also announced an accompanying Environmental Assessment. The service has proposed listing the bird as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, with a final determination expected by March 31.

“When you consider all acreage enrolled in the range-wide plan, plus various CCAAs, Farm Bill programs, and other conservation programs across the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, the total area is about the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined,” Van Pelt said. “This is also approximately half the size of the species’ current range. We believe this sets a record for conservation delivery on predominantly private land for a species under listing consideration.”

The range-wide CCAA provides another option for oil and gas companies, which can also enroll directly in the range-wide plan. CCAAs are pre-listing conservation tools, where enrollment must occur prior to a listing decision. Unlike the CCAA, enrollment under the range-wide plan can occur at any time before or after the listing decision.

Enrolling companies get regulatory assurances through a special USFWS rule or a CCAA permit, so that if the species is listed the companies have a pathway to continue operations and development in the region. 

The companies agree to pay modest enrollment fees, follow a list of guidelines to minimize impacts on the bird, and agree to pay for impacts they cannot avoid. The money goes to farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect and restore habitat for the bird.

Complementing the range-wide plan, landowner CCAAs offer legal assurances for farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. These cover a total of nearly 2.3 million acres across the three states. 

Landowners in Colorado and Kansas, who do not have access to a ranching CCAA, can enroll their lands under the RWP and receive the same assurances.

The range-wide plan includes habitat management goals and conservation practices to be applied throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, guided by the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT) online database and mapping system.

The range-wide plan can be viewed on the WAFWA website. Industry representatives with questions about the plan may contact Sean Kyle, chairman of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group, at sean.kyle@wafwa.org. 

Farmers, ranchers, and landowners may contact their local state fish and wildlife agency biologist to answer questions about enrollment in the plan.