The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is at a crossroads.
The lesser prairie chicken is coming perilously close to extinction in her home state of New Mexico. With only approximately 5,000 birds remaining on the shinnery oak prairie of eastern New Mexico and far West Texas, the service must make a call on listing this iconic western bird under the Endangered Species Act by May 26 pursuant to court order.
New Mexico private landowner ranchers, the N.M. Department of Game and Fish and other groups are now trying hard to work in a collective effort to move forward on a public-private solution. N.M. Game and Fish, under the leadership of Mike Sloane, has been exceptional in working collaboratively with other stakeholders, including private landowner partners, to begin to piece together a landscape scale conservation stronghold. The effort is focused in eastern New Mexico, especially in Roosevelt County.
As of this writing, a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is being approved for the five-state range of the lesser prairie chicken including New Mexico. The LPC needs durable conservation strongholds and restoration as well as effective coverage options for industries such as wind, solar and transmission.
The HCP is a program that offsets habitat lost to development with habitat preserved or restored nearby. This allows needed development in LPC habitat to proceed if it avoids, minimizes and mitigates habitat losses. HCPs are authorized under strict standards.
The standards are approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This long-term plan guides protection and enhancement of habitats for “threatened” and “endangered” wildlife species, while ongoing natural resource management continues. New Mexico private landowner ranchers will get a market-based payment for preserving or restoring LPC habitat where the LPC needs it most.
The sad reality is that New Mexico will face the most striking choice if the federal protection recommends an endangered status for the LPC in May. With the smallest population of birds in the five-state region, New Mexico is likely to fare most poorly among these five states. Even the best of intentions don’t translate into success if private landowners are not paid a meaningful, market-based payment rate and structure that delivers durable conservation where its needed most.
Approval of this new program is being announced in the Federal Register this week, and we invite public comment and input.
We applaud the leadership of Region 2 right here in Albuquerque and Secretary Haaland for advancing this progressive plan. We also hope existing programs will be upgraded to the new performance standards so we finally might have one conservation currency for all stakeholders.
Approving the new HCP program will provide state-of-the-art coverage for renewable energy installations, and eventually all industries, and move us from competition to collaboration with existing conservation efforts for the LPC. This new chapter will enable a strategic and collaborative environment.
Our hope is to help achieve a sustained and measurable conservation strategy for the LPC in a last-stand effort in New Mexico and across the range of this species with our local partners in eastern New Mexico.