The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies recently submitted a report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's the third annual report detailing achievements under the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan.
The 135-page report highlights a WAFWA purchase of an ecologically significant piece of property in Kansas, which protects nearly 30,000 acres of high-quality lesser prairie chicken habitat. In addition, the 2016 annual survey shows populations of the bird are stable.
The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of wildlife agencies in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, and is administered by WAFWA. The program was developed to promote conservation by providing a blueprint for lesser prairie chicken conservation through voluntary cooperation of landowners, land management agencies and industry participants. The plan allows participants to continue operations while restoring and maintaining habitat, and reducing development impacts to the bird and its habitat.
In the release noting the report, Alexa Sandoval, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and chairwoman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council, commented: "As we close out our third year of implementation, we’re really hitting our stride. We are encouraged that despite an oil and gas industry downturn, support for this collaborative conservation approach remains strong. We commend all of our partners for their participation in the range-wide plan."
Here's a look at 2016 findings from the report.
Private lands conservation
By the end of 2016, WAFWA noted it was conserving 16 sites totaling more than 133,000 acres either through fee title ownership or long-term contractual agreements. Three of the sites, more than 33,000 acres, are permanently conserved through perpetual conservation easements or fee title ownership. The other 13 sites are 10-year contracts covering more than 100,000 acres.
A key move in 2016 was the acquisition, by WAFWA, of nearly 30,000 acres of high-quality habitat in the sand sagebrush ecoregion. The property was purchased from a willing seller and will be managed as a working cattle ranch, using livestock as the primary tool to create optimum habitat for the bird. Another 1,781 acres of privately owned native rangeland is now permanently protected in the mixed-grass ecoregion, purchased as a perpetual easement and held by Pheasants Forever.
Bird population stable
The 2016 survey of the lesser prairie chicken, conducted by air to monitor populations, showed that numbers remain stable. The estimated breeding population is more than 25,000 birds in 2016, and while that's lower than the 29,000-plus recorded in 2015, scientists say this is not statistically significant given the variability associated with the survey. Aerial surveys are underway for 2017, and results will be reported in July.
Industry projects and conservation
In 2016, WAFWA reports that 114 industry-related projects were processed and mitigated. There are still credits available, with a range-wide positive value of 71,639 units. This reflects the continued low energy prices that have slowed industry development in the region. WAFWA has focused on committing enrollment and mitigation fees for conservation contracts to benefit the bird, and to ensure companies have available mitigation credit to develop as energy prices rebound.
Tech and conservation decisions
In 2016, WAFWA made progress in developing a database and making it available. Highlights include the integration of impact and conservation sites into a relational database to ensure all habitat impacts are offset by an appropriate conservation site. In addition, a custom website was developed that provides participating companies a way to submit and approve new projects, as well as view past submissions. WAFWA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can also use the web interface to obtain site-specific summary statistics, habitat mitigation credit balances and raw data.
Cooperation and conservation
A renewed cooperative effort between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever and WAFWA will enhance program promotion, monitoring activities, and conservation planning and delivery. There was also continued effort to work with state wildlife agencies to identify and pursue research and management needs. Those activities included lesser prairie chicken translocation efforts that moved birds from the shortgrass to sand sagebrush ecoregion.
If you want more information, you can download the WAFWA report at bit.ly/lesserprairiechicken2016.