Driving assessment

Oil industry braces for restrictions to keep rare bird

CARLSBAD, NM (AP) — Little prairie chickens once numbered in the thousands throughout the American West, thriving on the prairies of eastern New Mexico and the American West.

But in recent years, chicken numbers have declined amid the growing development of the oil, gas and agricultural sectors across the region and conservationists feared the unique bird was in danger of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed federal protections for the species under the Endangered Species Act last year, seeking an endangered listing for the bird in southeastern New -Mexico and western Texas and an endangered list in the rest of the animal’s range which extends through Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

A species is considered “endangered” by the agency when its extinction is deemed imminent, while “threatened” means the animal may soon warrant endangered status.

The two statutes lead the federal government to draw up a recovery plan and set aside areas considered to be “critical habitat” for the species at risk.

A final decision on listing the Little Prairie Chicken was expected this month, records show, and it could restrict access to land needed for the chicken’s recovery and impact some of New Brunswick’s biggest industries. Mexico, reported the Carlsbad Current-Argus.

That’s why Conservation Bank Lesser Prairie Chickens Conservation has come up with a habitat conservation plan for the oil and gas industry. It was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service on June 3.

This would allow oil and gas operations to take place in areas where the chicken could inhabit.

Energy companies buy protections from the conservation bank for areas called “strongholds”, while carrying out certain conservation practices on the land in the middle of their operations, and in exchange are exempted from future restrictions if the species is ultimately registered.

They receive an “incidental take” permit which refers to a certain number of birds that are allowed to be killed during development.

The intention, said Wayne Walker, chief executive of LPC Conservation, is to save the endangered animal while allowing essential economic drivers to continue.

This balance, he said, is essential because it involves companies that own large tracts of land.

“We believe that using a market-based business model is the best way to achieve the desired outcomes for everyone involved to finally deliver quantifiable conservation benefits to (the bird),” said he declared. “The species is a key indicator of the health of the southern Great Plains. LPC Conservation offers a legally defensible license that should be of interest to this industry.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement that registrants would be able to avoid future regulatory changes while helping conserve the bird.

The agency also released an environmental assessment in May that showed harvest permits would impact up to 500,000 acres of chicken habitat across the five states – 200,000 acres in the southern population segment. in New Mexico and Texas and 300,000 acres in the northern population.

Once implemented, the agency estimates the plan would lead to the restoration and continued management of up to one million acres of chicken habitat.

It would have “no significant impact” on the environment or human activity, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service report, and no further analysis was needed.

“For more than two decades, we have prioritized efforts with our partners to use all available tools to facilitate the conservation of the prairie chicken weevil,” the statement said. “Working with others is essential to protect ecosystems that benefit wildlife and the economy.”

Locally, CEHMM (The Center for Excellence), a Carlsbad-based nonprofit conservation organization, reported that it undertook several projects to protect the little prairie chicken in early 2022.

CEHMM offers conservation agreements also approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service for private and public lands.

Similar to the Habitat Conservation Plan, registrants agree to conservation practices to avoid future regulatory burdens if a listing is approved.

CEHMM said it had yet to find any leks, or grassland chicken breeding grounds, during a week-long survey conducted on March 23, according to its report for the first quarter of 2022 published last month.

The oil and gas industry has so far enrolled 508,737 acres of the bird’s occupied range in New Mexico in the CEHMM program, the report said, while 891,293 acres have been enrolled by ranchers and an additional 348,551 acres have been registered by the New Mexico State Land Office.

This means that about 1.2 million acres have been listed in total, just over half of the 2.1 million acres that CHEMM has identified as the range occupied by the bird.

Johnathan Hayes, executive director of the Audubon Society’s Southwest Region, said efforts to conserve the bird while protecting local industry were crucial to ensuring local communities were impacted as little as possible by government decisions. .

He said the Society supports chicken listing, but hopes plans like the one from LPC Conservation and others will provide economic support for conservation efforts.

“The listing decision is the right way forward, but we recognize it comes at a cost,” Hayes said. “We want to make sure of the negative impact that happens on the industry, that we allow the industry to have some ability to predict what those regulations will be and what that impact will be.”

Hayes said working to save the bird could also restore the land and ecosystem, supporting the wider environment, from human impacts to climate change.

“Birds are the canary in the coal mine. It’s a good example of us seeing that the loss of suitable habitat that’s driving the decline of these birds is absolutely an impact we’ve had on the landscape, the climate,” he said.

“It’s not just about the bird.”