Officials encourage prairie chicken feedback

More than 100 eastern New Mexico residents packed the North Annex of the Clovis-Carver Library Tuesday to get educated about the lesser prairie chicken and what it means to the region.

The bird is native to New Mexico, as well as four other states, and has been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a candidate for federal listing as a "threatened" species.

According to the USFWS, the lesser prairie chicken is of high interest because the species faces a number of threats including habitat loss, modification, degradation, and fragmentation within its range.

Local landowners, ranchers and oil and gas industry professionals fear the bird's listing as a threatened species will bring with it a host of federal rules and regulations that could negatively affect their businesses and livelihood.

A panel of seven subject matter experts, including oil and gas industry professionals, state agency representatives and an Eddy County rancher, spoke to Tuesday's crowd about the implications of such a listing, and shared information on what local residents can do to help stop it from happening.

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Jim Lane explained that one of the department's goals is to keep the lesser prairie chicken under state authority and work with other state entities to keep it off the federal register.

The department has been working with Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado on a five-state plan that Lane says solidly mitigates threats to the lesser prairie chicken and outlines how ranchers, wind energy stewards and the oil and gas industry can operate on the landscape and not negatively impact the chickens.

File photo

According to state wildlife officials, a recent survey revealed the prairie chicken is not endangered but its habitat needs to be more closely managed.

Lane's hope is that the five-state plan will prove to the USFWS that residents in the five affected states are already actively managing the landscape and are committed to taking measures to protect the lesser prairie chicken from extinction.

He encouraged feedback from those affected by the possible listing before the comment period closes on June 20.

Margaret and Dan Byfield, who run the non-profit advocacy group American Stewards of Liberty, have been working with eastern New Mexico counties to show the USFWS that the science behind the potential listing of the bird is without merit.

"The first question for us is, does it warrant listing?" said Margaret Byfield. "And if it doesn't warrant listing, and the science does not warrant listing, that's where we put our focus."

Byfield further explained that an independent research firm has put out a report that debunks much of the science the USFWS has been using to support its claim that the lesser prairie chicken deserves a threatened listing.

According to Byfield, the firm used hard data to determine that the population of lesser prairie chickens is not declining as originally thought, but has actually increased 6.9 percent annually since 1997.

Additionally, the firm determined that the genetic pool of lesser prairie chickens is not declining, as would be expected of a species under consideration for a threatened listing.

Dan Girard, an oil and gas producer from Chaves County, explained that the threatened listing of the bird would be detrimental to landowners and ranchers.

"Terrible, devastating," he said. "That sums it up."

Several local residents asked questions after the panel discussion, including former New Mexico Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, who wanted to know what the potential listing would mean for local dairy and ranch operations.

Cal Baca, chief of the wildlife division of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, explained that if the listing occurs, private property modifications that occur within the lesser prairie chicken habitat would necessitate government consultation, which could take up to 24 months.

Several panel members encouraged residents to contact their New Mexico senators and representative to put pressure on the USFWS to enter a not warranted decision for the chicken's listing as threatened.

"When they hear from you, it makes a difference." Girard said.

The USFWS is slated to make its decision on whether to list the bird in September.

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