By Corey Paul
Backers of a four-state effort to protect the lesser prairie chicken touted enrollment in the plan in recent days, ahead of the federal decision expected later this month on whether to list the grouse as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
West Texas energy companies and farmers with land in the bird’s habitat seek to avert federal intervention, worried a “threatened” listing could stymie their activities on the roughly 40 million acres where the bird roams in Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma.
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed listing for the bird last year, and the so-called Range-wide Conservation Plan represents an effort to prevent such federal intervention. It is supported by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association.
“A listing decision would be economically devastating to this entire five-state region,” Ben Shepperd, PBPA president, said. “The Permian Basin is a big chunk of that.”
The plan functions as a voluntary effort where companies pay fees to offset chicken deaths or disturbances to their habitat by routing that money for conservation efforts by landowners, non-governmental organizations and state regulatory agencies. The Range-wide Plan is managed by an administrative agency created by the states called the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA).
“What we are trying to do here is the local solution for a national issue, and that national issue is a listing decision,” said Bill Vanpelt, the grassland coordinator of WAFWA. “The service has been very clear that this Range-Wide Plan, if implemented as described, will provide the conservation benefit for this species, which means it is being protected. It is being conserved, and thus I believe we could preclude the need to list this species. And this is a great demonstration of how industry recognized their role in conservation.”
WAFWA reported Thursday that companies and individuals contributed 2.5 million acres and $15 million invested in conservation efforts.
Vanpelt said that counting separate conservation efforts, about half of the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat is covered.
But the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmentalist groups that prompted Fish and Wildlife to consider the listing, argues thatthe lesser prairie chicken still requires full protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“The state plan is insufficient because it’s not designed to protect sufficient habitat to actually conserve the lesser prairie chicken . . . and it doesn’t have measures in it that go far enough to actually recover the lesser prairie chicken,” said Tanya Sanerib, an attorney for the group.
All parties involved in the dispute agree the lesser prairie chicken’s population has diminished. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the grouse’s rage of grasslands and prairies has been reduced over several decades by an estimated 84 percent. In 2012, the bird’s population dropped by an estimated 50 percent — primarily because of drought — to about 17,616.
The WAFWA effort so far represents 14 utility companies, eight oil and gas companies, two wind energy developments and one natural gas pipeline.
But most of that acreage came from Occidental Petroleum, a major Permian Basin oil and gas operator that announced its enrollment just a day earlier. Oxy, as the company is called, enrolled 1.8 million acres of its oil and gas interests in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. About 532,000 acres were in Texas, said Nancy Turner, director of external affairs for the company.
Enrollment in the plan began in November, after Fish and Wildlife endorsed the effort.
But even then, Shepperd, who has fought listing and the previous listing consideration of the dunes sagebrush lizard, said in a membership meeting at the time that the program remained unpopular.
The PBPA also helped form the Range-Wide Plan and raised money to support state surveys of the bird.
“I’ve heard from a number of our members that this is extortion. Why do we have to do this at all?’” Shepperd said. “One of the answers to that is, well, we have to.”
Shepperd said a listing could mean a lengthier permitting process by up to two years and higher costs that render the drilling uneconomical.
Since the October membership meeting, Shepperd has gone from saying the listing seems likely to expressing optimism that Fish and Wildlife will accept the state plan, which he expects to grow in coming weeks as companies scramble to enroll before the listing-decision deadline.
“Top producers in the Permian are either enrolled or considering enrollment,” he said. Because the Fish and Wildlife endorsed the plan, it would still offer producers some protection if the chicken is listed as threatened and better protect the bird. “Frankly, we are doing pretty good. We were able to come up with a plan that’s been approved by the service and get substantial enrollment with more to come. Just a tremendous amount of legwork has to go into building these (enrollments). It’s not procrastination so much as it takes time.”
But major oil and gas companies with energy lobbyists are already preparing a separate plan in case of a listing, the American Habitat Center, which functions as a wildlife habitat exchange program.
That effort includes some of the Permian Basin’s biggest oil companies operating in the chicken’s habitat, would let companies pay landowners to conserve habitat on a free-market exchange. But Shepperd opposed that plan, worried that it would disadvantage the smaller Permian Basin companies by creating a system of winners and losers, and that it would also spend too much money on overhead instead of conservation efforts.
In the meantime, as the end-of-march March deadline there is pressure to show involvement in the voluntary statewide plan, said Sanerib, who expects the listing.
“I think that both the oil and gas companies and the state wildlife agencies are trying very hard to show Fish and Wildlife that folks will enroll in their program,” Sanerib said.
Tom Harvey, the deputy communications director of Texas Parks and Wildlife who helped to coordinate the recent announcements of progress in the statewide plan, did not dispute that characterization.
“It’s absolutely true that the Range Wide Plan is gaining momentum and it’s been particularly increased with what’s happened in the last month or so,” Harvey said. “Who knows how that will grow in the next few weeks.”