Lesser Prairie-Chicken Plan Requires Careful Evaluation
On October 23, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) endorsed a voluntary conservation plan for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LEPC) drafted by the states of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas where the increasingly rare grouse is found. The plan’s stated goal is to preclude the need for listing the LEPC as a threatened species and to maintain state authority for LEPC management. While Audubon New Mexico has recognized the effort undertaken to produce this plan, and commented on it during its development, we were surprised that the Federal agency charged with objectively evaluating all scientific information and public comment received for the proposed listing of the LEPCwould endorse this plan so quickly without evaluating its provisions and the likelihood of success.
On the surface, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ plan, which calls for financial incentives for landowners who manage their property to benefit the LEPC and also provides a framework to mitigate the impacts of development activity such as oil and gas drilling, sounds like a win-win for all parties involved. But what has not been evaluated is how effective this plan will actually be in increasing LEPC populations, and that is where Audubon’s concern lies. Contrary to what has been reported, we wish to clarify that Audubon New Mexico has not advocated for Federal listing of this species. We are, however, raising a cautionary flag and calling for the Range-Wide Conservation Plan to be implemented immediately and evaluated carefully for effectiveness. Given its emphasis on voluntary measures, some of which have been implemented for years with no quantifiable effects on LEPC populations, and on a mitigation plan which is unproven and has yet to be implemented, Audubon believes that the plan should be evaluated on its results for LEPC populations, not on its intent.
Our concerns have been further heightened by the results of the 2013 Range-wide Aerial Survey for Lesser Prairie-Chicken, which showed a 50% decline in LEPC population numbers. When Federal regulators first proposed listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act in 2012 there were fewer than 35,000 birds, while this year’s survey estimated only 17,616 individuals across the bird’s range. These results underscore the perilous status of the LEPC and should be a warning to the FWS that good intentions are not sufficient to bring about recovery of the species. Audubon has actively advocated for LEPC recovery in New Mexico for almost 25 years, and we have seen many plans fail for lack of consistent implementation.
While drought has widely been cited for the decline of the species, the larger threat to survival of the species is loss of habitat from energy development and conversion to agriculture. The prairie utilized by the LEPC in New Mexico also supports other declining grassland species such as the Ferruginous Hawk, Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Grasshopper Sparrow. Having lost more than 97% of our native grasslands in the U.S., conserving the remaining habitat and the grassland birds it supports must be a high priority.
At Audubon, we are interested in establishing effective, proactive management actions, long-term habitat protections and funding mechanisms that will bolster LEPC populations throughout their range. Audubon is committed to remaining engaged in the conservation of this species and to working with FWS and all partners towards a successful outcome for the LEPC.