CARLSBAD, NM (AP) — Oil and gas companies could play a key role in saving a nearly extinct native bird species in southeastern New Mexico.
That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a plan specific to extractive operators that would outline actions they could take to prevent impacts to prairie chicken habitat in eastern New Mexico and parts of West Texas.
Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the prairie chicken as endangered in its Southern Distinct Population Segment (DPS), which is found in New Mexico and western Texas. DPS from northern Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and the panhandle of northern Texas have been proposed for a threatened list.
Endangered listings unlock the strictest federal protections when a species’ extinction is deemed by the Fish and Wildlife Service to be imminent, while a threatened status means a species may soon become endangered. of disappearance.
In addition to protecting bird populations, believed to be as low as 1,500 in the South Chicken DPS, the Fish and Wildlife Service is also responsible for setting aside land that could be used as habitat for recovery.
This population was once believed to number in the millions in the five states.
To begin the work of recovering the bird to its former numbers, two habitat recovery plans were released by the federal government: one tailored to the renewable energy sector last year and another released for the oil and gas industry on February 11, beginning a 30-day public comment period.
If a company subscribes to one of the plans, they will be asked to follow specific conservation measures and, in response, will be protected against future litigation.
This responsibility is transferred to LPC Conservation, the company that developed the plans and acts as administrator, the Carlsbad Current Argus Reported.
Chief executive Wayne Walker said his company hopes to use the plans to create conservation “strongholds” for the bird that would see private acreage set aside for chicken recovery.
It’s been done before, but Walker said his vision is to seek out specific lands that are ideal for bird habitat and adject other strongholds.
“The Service has a very prescriptive focus. That said, that’s what these birds need. This type of habitat, this scale, these many leks,” Walker said. “Not many places have that. There is a real shortage of sites to keep this bird.
To be able to do this, Walker said LPC Conservation approaches landowners and offers them “market value” for their land to be used for conservation.
This differs from past efforts, he said, which targeted land that was already available and unused, leading to smaller fortresses scattered across the bird’s range.
“Other programs have a lot of square footage on the scoreboard, but they’re spread out,” Walker said. “This bird needs thousands of acres of continuous acreage, not pockets of conservation.”
By paying more for the land, Walker said his plan would be more palatable to landowners like ranchers or energy companies.
“The difference we have is that we’re trying to do the one thing that nobody did in New Mexico or West Texas,” Walker said. “We try to pay landowners a market value for conservation strongholds exactly where the bird needs them.
“It changes the nature of the discussion about what’s going to get out of a market-based approach.”
When a company joins the habitat plan, it first assesses operations in the habitat area, studies the impact of infrastructure such as wells, pipelines, or roads, and submits a report to Fish and Wildlife. Service for certification.
Companies will buy credits that will incentivize them to avoid known habitats and limit impacts.
Walker said it was important to have a plan specific to the oil and gas industry as the main economic driver of southeast New Mexico and west Texas and an industry that could be the most affected by land conservation development.
“There’s a long and storied history with the little prairie chicken and the oil and gas industry,” he said. “There are strong feelings within this industry about how these programs have worked or not. We thought it best to give the oil and gas industry a dedicated solution that they can choose to use.
Adam Riggsbee, founder of RiverBank Conservation – a “conservation banking” company in Austin, Texas, which funds land deals and collaborated on the plan, said that to date around 10,000 acres have been approved for conservation , including 2,000 officially reserved.
On the South Texas side of the DPS, Riggsbee said about 9,000 acres are being retained and another 1,500 may soon be added.
Collaboration with industry is crucial, he said, to ensure conservation can take place without disrupting economic development.
This will allow private industry, which owns the necessary land, to join the effort as a partner, Riggsbee said.
“This investment is made in both dollars and land. Investment and industry can work together. The economy can keep spinning while giving the little chicken of the prairies a chance to recover,” he said. “That’s what we want, sustainable development.
Amy Lueders, Southwest Regional Director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the collaborative approach will bring sustainable conservation while continuing to support local industry.
“This plan will result in strategic conservation of lesser prairie grouse by offsetting the impacts of listed oil and gas development,” she said. “Collaborations like this play a vital role in conserving species at risk and their habitats while providing the certainty needed to support development.”