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U.S. agency backs prairie chicken plan

Five states contributed to plan to improve habitat for threatened bird

LAS CRUCES – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has backed a plan by five state wildlife agencies to conserve the lesser prairie chicken, whose habitat in southeastern New Mexico is threatened.

The plan created jointly by New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado calls for financial incentives to landowners who manage their lands in ways that protect the species and offers a framework to mitigate the damaging effects of development on the birds.

The lesser prairie chicken – a grouse known for its cooing, colorful spring mating dance – was being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The conservation plan precludes an endangered species designation.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce lauded the conservation effort.

“State governments, as well as local farmers, ranchers and businesses have gone to great lengths to take initiative in the conservation of this species,” Pearce said in a statement, adding that a listing under the Endangered Species Act “is clearly an unnecessary measure.”

Jay Lininger, ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, disagrees.

“We are disappointed,” he said. The states’ plan “locks the lesser prairie chicken into small areas of habitat, precludes their recovery and gives blanket approval to industrial activities that are pushing them to extinction.”

Hawks and falcons prey on the grouse, so it avoids areas where those predators could get a perch, such as power lines, said Lininger. Oil and gas development has also fragmented the birds’ New Mexico habitat.

Drought is another enemy: The birds’ population dropped 50 percent last year alone, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The population today hovers at 17,616, down from more than 34,000 birds in the prior year.