The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves oil and gas industry Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances
By the time this issue appears, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) may have already announced its intentions as to whether or not it will list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as an endangered species. In the meanwhile, however, efforts at convincing USFWS to forgo the listing have notched some milestones.
Private companies in five states have now enrolled more than 2.5 million acres in the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, a joint effort by oil and gas interests along with pipelines, electric transmission, and wind energy, lining up nearly $15 million for habitat conservation over the next three years. When the 2.5 million is added to more than 1.3 million acres of oil and gas leases under conservation agreements in New Mexico, the total industry commitment comes close to 4 million acres.
As PBPA president Ben Shepperd observed in a message to PBPA membership in March, this organization has, over the last several years, dealt continually with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s over that agency’s proposal to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken (LPC) as Threatened or Endangered. “PBPA and a dozen or so members of our Endangered Species committee have worked tirelessly for the last couple of years analyzing the scientific literature, preparing comments in opposition to a listing and developing conservation plans designed to prevent a listing, protect the bird, and allow economic activity to continue,” Shepperd said.
USFWS had indicated that they were to make their decision on or before March 31. Said Shepperd: “I want to make sure everyone is aware of the Range-Wide Plan (RWP) and Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) which has been developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and a broad group of industry stakeholders. This agreement will provide protections to enable operations to continue in the event of a listing. Strong enrollment may encourage the Service not to list.”
As of this writing, the range-wide plan enrollment now includes 14 electric transmission companies, representing most of the electric grid across the species’ range in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. And two wind energy developments and one natural gas pipeline company have signed on, with more in the process of enrollment.
Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had signed a Range-wide Oil and Gas Industry Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the western association, under the range-wide plan developed by WAFWA and state wildlife agencies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Service also announced an accompanying Environmental Assessment.
“Under the range-wide plan, a broad coalition of government, industry, agriculture, and conservation interests is demonstrating unprecedented collaboration, showing we can take care of this bird and its prairie habitat without needing to list it,” said Bill Van Pelt, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) grassland coordinator.
“When you consider all acreage enrolled in the range-wide plan, plus various CCAAs, Farm Bill programs, and other conservation programs across the Lesser Prairie Chicken’s range, the total area is about the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. This is also approximately half the size of the species’ current range. We believe this sets a record for conservation delivery on predominantly private land for a species under listing consideration.”
The range-wide CCAA provides another option for oil and gas companies, which can also enroll directly in the range-wide plan. CCAAs are prelisting conservation tools, wherein enrollment must occur prior to a listing decision. Unlike the CCAA, enrollment under the range-wide plan can occur at any time before or after the listing decision.
Enrolling companies get regulatory assurances through a special USFWS rule or a CCAA permit, so that if the species is listed, the companies have a pathway to continue operations and development in the region. The companies pay modest enrollment fees, follow a list of guidelines to minimize impacts on the bird, and pay for impacts they cannot avoid. The money goes to farmers, ranchers, and landowners to protect and restore habitat for the bird.
Complementing the range-wide plan, landowner CCAAs offer legal assurances for farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Landowners in Colorado and Kansas, who do not have access to a ranching CCAA, can enroll their lands under the RWP and receive the same assurances.
The range-wide plan includes habitat management goals and conservation practices to be applied throughout the Lesser Prairie Chicken’s range, guided by the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT) online database and mapping system.
The range-wide plan can be viewed on the WAFWA website at wafwa.org. Industry representatives with questions about the plan may contact Sean Kyle, chairman of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Farmers, ranchers, and landowners may contact their local state fish and wildlife agency biologist to obtain answers about enrollment in the plan.