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Rally held to protest species protection

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ROSWELL — Southeast New Mexico residents and elected officials on Tuesday strongly derided the federal government’s proposal to designate the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species — and that was all before the start of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public hearing on the matter.

“We’re going to band together and fight this thing,” said state Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, during a nearly two-hour rally organized by the Roswell and Artesia chambers of commerce and held before the agency hearing at Eastern New Mexico University. “The federal government is not going to come in here and tell us what to do.”

Critics said listing the lesser prairie chicken could severely damage ongoing oil and gas production, which accounts for $1 billion in state revenue each year and most of state education funding, according to Wooley.

“That’s what we’re dealing with here, and that’s what we’re about to cut out of our economy,” said state Sen. Carol Leavell, R-Jal.

The rally, which drew about 150 people, mirrored another in the same airplane hangar in 2011 when speaker after speaker railed against the proposed listing of the dunes sagebrush lizard, another species struggling in the state’s oil patch as a result of fragmented and shrinking habitat.

Outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided last June that endangered species protections were not warranted for the lizard, largely because voluntary conservation agreements signed by oil and natural gas companies, ranchers and others resulted in sufficient protections for remaining lizard habitat.

Several speakers Tuesday expressed the hope that a similar decision will be made in the case of the lesser prairie chicken. Similar conservation agreements have been signed in New Mexico, and other steps have been taken to conserve the bird’s shrinking available habitat.

Jim Lane, director of the state Game and Fish Department, said the state has been working with other states that would be affected by the Endangered Species Act listing — Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas — on a sweeping species management plan that he said would make it unnecessary to list the bird.

The chicken was first proposed for listing as a threatened or endangered species in 1996 in a petition filed by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colo. Since 1998, the Wildlife Service has designated the bird’s inclusion on the endangered species list as “warranted, but precluded” by other higher priority listing decisions.

The historic range of the lesser prairie chicken in grassland that provides protection from predators has shrunk by 84 percent, and it now nests in fragmented habitat in five states. In announcing the plan to list the bird, which is distinguished by brilliant plumage and a colorful mating dance performed by males, the agency said the species is “likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future” without additional protections.

The rally’s headliner, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., criticized the federal government’s management of national forests and called environmental organizations that have pushed listing of the lesser prairie chicken “lawsuit factories.” Pearce skipped the State of the Union address to attend the rally.

Later, at the public hearing, more than three dozen people spoke but none supported the proposed listing.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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