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Federal wildlife agency lays out rules for oil, gas protection

12/20/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Now moving at breakneck speeds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on yet another proposal oil and gas companies said they wanted before signing on with a conservation plan aimed at protecting the lesser prairie chicken.

It's the second proposal in as many weeks dealing with the lesser prairie chicken, which is being considered for addition to the federal endangered species list as threatened.

Hundreds of pages of documents supporting the permit process were made public Tuesday by the FWS, which now is asking for comments through Jan. 17 on the proposal.

The agency changed its normal procedure, although it's unlikely to have much effect.

The documents were published by the Denver-based Mountain-Prairie region even though the Southwest region has been the lead agency on the listing.

Comments also won't be sent through normal channels, instead being sent directly to the field supervisor of the Colorado Ecological services office in Lakewood. By doing so, FWS is making it more difficult for the public to see what comments are being made without filing a Freedom of Information request.

The permits, however, are being driven by a conservation plan put together by the five states -- Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma -- inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken.

It's that plan -- submitted and then revised at the insistence of the federal wildlife agency -- that's driving the rush to provide the framework to issue what's called candidate conservation agreements.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, of which Kansas is a member, is seeking the permitting authority.

"The intent of the CCAA is to provide the oil and gas industry with the opportunity to voluntarily conserve the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat in a manner that would contribute to precluding the need to list the species, while carrying out their oil and gas activities," the Federal Register posting said.

Effectively, the permit would allow the "incidental take" -- the killing of prairie chickens -- in the course of drilling for oil in exchange for paying fees that will be used to pay farmers to implement conservation measures in so-called focal areas.

WAFWA would levy a 12.5-percent fee on the process to cover its costs and those of the state fish and game departments.

Jim Pitman, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism's small game coordinator and a member of the science committee on the five-state plan, already voiced concern the lack of a permitting process might limit enrollment prior to the end of March, when FWS must render its decision.

FWS, when it endorsed the five-state plan, said it would take enrollment in the conservation provisions of the plan into account when it decides whether to list the bird as threatened.

Just last week, FWS published another rule, setting out new procedures that would offer protection to farmers in the course of routine agricultural activities.

But it offered that protection by suggesting practices that fly in the face of normal processes, such as starting harvest in the middle of a field and working toward the outside.

It also set out a rule that effectively would serve as a de facto anti-sodbuster rule within the prairie chicken's territory.

Comments on those rules can be made through Jan. 10 at regulations.gov, which now has been used in the three prior comment periods on listing the chicken.

Comments on the permit process and its environmental assessment must be made by Jan. 17, and must be sent to the Colorado office by email at lesserprairiechicken@fws.gov or by regular mail at 134 Union Blvd., Suite 670, Lakewood, CO 80228.