Later this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must decide whether to list the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act. With this deadline looming, state and private landowners are racing to finalize conservation agreements for the species, with the hope of staving off the need for listing. Less than two months ago, the Service approved the latest of these agreements, which covers existing and potential prairie chicken habitat in Oklahoma.
The agreement is a candidate conservation agreement with assurances (CCAA), which offers participants a legal assurance: if the prairie chicken is listed, the participants will not be required to take any conservation actions beyond those they agreed to under the CCAA. The Service has finalized 26 other CCAAs in the 13 years this tool has been available. In an upcoming Defenders report, we analyze all of these CCAAs and describe how and when the Service has used them. For now, I note a few interesting or unique aspects about this latest Oklahoma CCAA.
First, it specifically prohibits a number of activities that are highly destructive to the prairie chicken. These include all oil and gas development, conversion of native rangeland to farmland, tree planting, wind turbine development, and transmission lines. Not all CCAAs are so protective. The Texas CCAA for the dunes sagebrush lizard, for example, allows for oil and gas development and other high impact activities (our recent report covers this issue). Strict prohibitions like the ones in the Oklahoma CCAA are a good idea if the state wants to convince the Service that listing the species is unnecessary.
The agreement also prohibits predator control or removal as a method to conserve the prairie chicken. This is the first CCAA I have read that includes such a forward-thinking provision. The agreement explains that “predators have historically been a natural part of the landscape” in the range of the prairie chicken. “In those instances where predators do post a serious threat, this is symptomatic of diminished habitat quality….” By addressing the root cause of the problem rather than slapping on a Band-Aid, the CCAA is helping to ensure that prairie chicken conservation does not come at the expensive of native predators.
Finally, the agreement does an admirable job attempting to estimate the number of lesser prairie chickens inhabiting the area covered by the CCAA and the number that may be harmed by conservation measures it authorizes. Most CCAAs do not even attempt this task, leaving the public with little idea about how an agreement will affect the abundance of a species. The Oklahoma CCAA estimates that 402 birds are reasonably expected to occur in the 200,000 acres the state plans to enroll under the agreement by 2037. From this figure, the CCAA estimates the number of individual birds that might be inadvertently killed by conservation measures such as prescribed burns and brush management—no more than an average of 20 birds annually and 10 nests with eggs or broods annually.
To be sure, this CCAA is not perfect. For example, the adaptive management and monitoring provisions could use a big boost. But it certainly was designed to address the most severe threats facing the prairie chicken. Future implementation and transparent reporting will show the extent to which this agreement advances the conservation goals of the species.
Additional Resources on the Lesser Prairie Chicken
My blog post on five problems with the recent proposed rule to list the species as threatened.
A related blog post on the demographic problems with the proposed rule.