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Agency endorses prairie chicken plan

10/24/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has endorsed a five-state conservation plan designed to boost habitat to ensure the survival of lesser prairie chicken, targeted for addition to the endangered species list.

In endorsing the plan, announced during a conference call with reporters Wednesday, FWS Director Dan Ashe offered the five states -- Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma -- a powerful tool to use to convince oil, gas, wind and power developers to participate.

Participating developers who operate under the auspices of the plan, he said, will be shielded if lesser prairie chickens are killed in the normal course of business. By participating, those developers would put up the money to set aside grassland habitat that would help boost the chances of survival of the bird.

At the other end of the program, money from developers would be used to pay landowners to implement practices that will boost habitat and preserve the grassland bird.

Lesser prairie chickens have been waiting in the wings for protection since 1999, when the federal agency first was asked to add the bird to the endangered species list.

Last year, in the wake of a court settlement, FWS proposed listing the bird as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The five states the bird can be found rushed to put together a conservation plan. That plan was put together in concert with the federal agency, so Wednesday's endorsement came as little surprise.

Already, state wildlife biologists are rushing to train other biologists so the program can get off the ground. Enrollment in the program can begin immediately, said WAFWA President Carter Smith, executive director of the natural resources for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Smith hailed the five-state plan even though Texas nearly pulled out of the program at the last minute.

Ashe said the birds' status has eroded, with surveys the past two years showing the estimated population of the birds dropping from 45,000 at the start of 2012 to approximately 18,000 this spring.

Most of those birds are in Kansas, which continues to allow hunting.

While Ashe was quick to say the endorsement of the plan isn't a signal of the agency's decision on whether or not to list the bird as threatened, he did say it will be considered when the decision is made in March.

"We will consider that in our listing decision," he said of progress in getting people signed up.

But even if the bird is listed, the conservation plan would remain in place.

While state wildlife agencies will be recruiting voluntary participants on the oil, gas, wind and power side of the program, using the money to pay landowners to develop ideal habitat, it will be done under the auspices of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

A 15-percent administrative fee will be assessed to cover the cost of biologists involved, but operating under the WAWFA umbrella will keep records on the program from public review.

Still, Ashe hailed the process, calling it a "new model for doing business."

The agency will have to implement yet another special rule offering protection against "takings," essentially killing prairie chickens, for developers participating in the plan.

It will be the second time FWS has modified ground rules for the bird.

Earlier, the agency adopted a rule that could let Kansas continue its hunting season, in some counties inhabited by both lesser and greater prairie chickens. Those counties are located west of Hays.

Ashe said the decision on listing the bird will be made in March.

"This conservation plan is a big step in the right direction," he said.