Tag Archive | "Lesser prairie chicken"

Defenders Issues New Report on Candidate Species Agreements

Several months ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finalized its schedule for deciding whether to propose listing of almost 200 candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Many private landowners and state wildlife agencies are eager to conserve these species, with the goal of avoiding the need for listing.  One of their chief tools is candidate conservation agreements with assurances (CCAAs).  By entering into a CCAA with the Service, participants get an important legal assurance: if a species is eventually listed despite the best efforts of the participants, they will not be required to take any conservation actions beyond those agreed to in the CCAA.  Not a bad deal.

The Service regulation that created CCAAs was finalized in 1999 under the leadership of Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defender’s current president and CEO.  Since that time, 27 CCAAs have been finalized, but no one has ever evaluated all the agreements and few people understand how they have been used.  In fact, no online database exists of all CCAAs (the Service’s online database is currently missing four agreements).

Earlier this week, Defenders released a report that evaluates all 26 CCAAs finalized through 2012 (the 27th CCAA was issued after we completed our report).  We evaluated agreements for 1) types of activities covered, 2) types of species covered, 3) number of agreements finalized per year, 4) number of programmatic agreements (applying to multiple participants rather than a single one), 5) duration of agreements, and 6) record of preventing species from being listed.

Our evaluation of the types of activities is perhaps the most interesting.  We assigned each CCAA into one of three categories: those that authorize only activities intended to conserve species; those that authorize reintroduction of species into their former range; and those that authorize both conservation and non-conservation activities.  That’s right—not every activity authorized under a CCAA is intended to conserve a species.  The important point is that the impacts of conservation activities should outweigh those of non-conservation activities, such that the species experiences an overall benefit.

Our report also recommends improvements to CCAA implementation.  We found that Service biologists have been implementing CCAAs in innovative ways that are not discussed in the CCAA regulation or draft handbook.  We underscore eight of these innovations and encourage the Service to consider incorporating them into its CCAA guidance documents.
*          *          *          *

This CCAA report is the third in a series of Defenders reports on improving endangered species law, policy, and science.  In case you missed them, the first report describes some of our strategies for making the ESA more effective and efficient, and the second report reveals serious flaws with the Service’s decision last year to withdraw its proposed rule to list the dunes sagebrush lizard and recommends ways to avoid these problems in future listing decisions.  A week after we published the second report, we filed a notice of intent to sue the Service over the withdrawal.

Click here to view the CCAA report

Louisiana pine snake, a candidate species. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Conservationist

Louisiana pine snake, a candidate species. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Conservationist

 

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation, private lands, Public LandsComments (0)

Oklahoma Finalizes Conservation Agreement for Lesser Prairie Chicken

Oklahoma Finalizes Conservation Agreement for Lesser Prairie Chicken

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.

Lesser Prairie Chicken

Lesser prairie chicken. Courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service.

 

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife, private lands, UncategorizedComments (0)

McRoberts_Mar2007_1LesserPrairieChicken

Five Problems with the Proposed Rule to List the Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Last month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced its long-awaited decision on whether to propose listing the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  It has been over fourteen years since the Service concluded that the species warranted listing.  With all this time, you would assume that the Service would have issued something close to an impeachable listing proposal.  But what Tim Male and I have uncovered in our review of the proposal are a number of puzzling and disappointing gaps.  Here, we summarize the top five problems.

First, the conservation goals for the lesser prairie-chicken are perplexingly low.  The Service believes that it can adequately conserve the species if it maintains a minimum of four “strongholds” — each consisting of 25,000 – 50,000 acres of habitat, 6-10 leks, and 6 birds of each sex — augmented by an “undetermined number of additional strongholds.”  Four strongholds would cover up to 200,000 acres, 40 leks, and 500 birds.  By meeting this goal and reducing threats to the species, the Service presumably believes that it can withdraw the proposed listing.  But 200,000 acres (313 sq. miles) is a mere 1.15 percent of the bird’s current occupied range (27,259 sq. miles) and 0.17 percent of its historic range (180,309 sq. miles).

Now also consider the Service’s conservation goals for the greater sage grouse, which is another candidate species facing similar threats and exhibiting similar life-history traits.  The Service believes it needs at least 20,000 sage grouse (40 populations of 500 birds each) distributed across 165 million acres of habitat.   So we have 20,000 sage grouse versus 500 prairie-chicken (40 times as much) and 165 million acres versus 200,000 acres (825 times as much).  Keep in mind that, by the Service’s own admission, these are “closely related and generally similar” species.  The Service has not explained how such gargantuan disparities are scientifically justified.

A second problem is that the proposed rule neglects to analyze the potential loss of lesser prairie-chicken habitat resulting from proposed changes to the federal Farm Bill, specifically the elimination of basic conservation requirements for farmers.  Recent data show that between 2008 and 2011, over 23 million acres of wildlife habitat was converted into row crop agriculture, including over 1.5 million acres in the counties where prairie chickens still occur (you can learn more about the losses in the blog post here).  These losses are the result of subsidies for crop insurance that incentivize the destruction of wildlife habitat as well as high crop prices, driven in part by ethanol subsidies and mandates.  Congress has also proposed changes to the Farm Bill that would exacerbate these losses, driving the prairie-chicken closer to extinction.  The listing proposal neither accounts for this recent data nor the proposed changes to the Farm Bill.  It instead relies on outdated and incomplete data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on land use changes in the range of the prairie-chicken from many years ago.

A third issue is that the Service neglects recent data showing reduced enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the counties the lesser prairie chicken occurs.  The Service first expounds on the importance of the CRP at preventing or stopping declines of the lesser prairie-chicken.  It then describes how farmers currently enrolled in the CRP have expiring contracts and are expected to reenroll.  It bases this prediction on the fact that in 2007, many farmers with expiring CRP contracts requested to reenroll.  What it never mentions is whether those farmers actually followed through.  The reality is that reenrollment after 2007 has been extremely low in counties occupied by the prairie-chicken.  Over 4.5 million acres expired between 2007 and 2013, but 2 million of those acres were never reenrolled.  Although over 1 million new acres have been enrolled and planted with grass, that habitat is likely to be of lower quality until it matures in several years.  More importantly, the new enrollment still leaves the CRP with a net loss of 1 million acres in the counties where the prairie-chicken is found.

A fourth problem is that the Service never analyzes the impacts of candidate conservation agreements for the lesser prairie-chicken.  The Service summarizes the status of the four candidate conservation agreements that have been finalized for the species and the one draft agreement that is pending approval.  For example, it describes the amount of habitat enrolled in each agreement and some of the conservation measures participants must implement.  But the Service never takes its analysis to the crucial next step: explaining how the agreements help reduce threats to the species and why the level of threat-reduction is not enough to avoid listing the species as threatened.

This is a troubling omission because in proposed listing rules for other species, the Service always explains why voluntary conservation agreements for the species are inadequate to obviate a listing.  These explanations have allowed the public to understand why agreements may fall short and what additional conservation is needed after listing.  For example, in the recent proposed rule to list the spring pygmy sunfish, the Service explained that the one candidate conservation agreement for the species was not enough to prevent listing.  The reason was that the agreement had yet to demonstrate its effectiveness and did not protect 76 percent of the species’ habitat.

The Service typically provides this explanation in its analysis of the threats that cause a species to warrant listing.  This analysis, also known as the five-factor threat analysis, covers issues including habitat loss and inadequacy of existing laws to protect the species.  The five-factor analysis for the prairie-chicken is entirely silent on the five candidate conservation agreements.  It is unfortunate that the Service spends many years of hard work to draft and implement the agreements, but then never explains their impacts on the species.

The final oversight is one of failing to follow the Service’s own procedures.  The Service concluded that the lesser prairie-chicken is “threatened” but never explains why it is not “endangered” throughout a “significant portion of its range.”  The Service is required to list a species if it is either “threatened” or “endangered” in either “all” or a “significant portion” of its range.  So there are four combinations that could trigger listing.  The proposed rule concludes that the lesser prairie-chicken is “threatened” in all of its range, but never explains why the species is not also “endangered” in only a “significant portion” of its range.  If the latter were true, the USFWS would have to list the species as endangered, which can offer greater protection than a threatened listing.

The failure to complete this analysis is a serious oversight that runs afoul of the requirements of the ESA and the Service’s own policies.  In fact, earlier this year, the USFWS issued a proposed policy that specifically confirms the need to analyze whether a species is endangered in a significant portion of its range—even if the species meets the definition of threatened.  This analysis is important for species like the lesser prairie-chicken that have been eliminated from most of their historic range.  For the prairie-chicken, some populations may be highly imperiled but also essential to the species’ ability to survive and recover.  It is precisely those populations that are likely to be endangered and make up a “significant portion” of the species’ range.  But the Service would never know unless it looked.

Defenders will continue to uncover additional gaps with the proposed rule, with the hope that the Service addresses these issues its upcoming decision to either finalize the proposed rule, modify it, or withdraw it.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

LPC Habitat conversion map

Lesser prairie chicken habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

The lesser prairie chicken, one of our nation’s iconic grassland birds known for its unique breeding behavior, is also one of our most at-risk species. A new report released by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop insurance subsidies are threatening to convert even more of the grasslands that these birds need to survive.

To read more about lesser prairie chickens and farm subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Lesser prairie chickens rely on a diversity of grassland habitats, including short- and mid-height grasses and forbs together with shrubs to provide cover. Loss of this diverse habitat is one of the biggest threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s continued survival.  As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 1998 that the species warranted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Unless the situation improves for the prairie chicken, it may become federally protected by next fall as part of the Service’s six-year plan to issue final listing decisions for over 250 candidate species.

Based on our report, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses,” more than 1.5 million acres of habitat have been converted to cropland in counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found between 2008 and 2011. This is despite investments by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In FY11, NRCS spent $11 million on improving land management and increasing and enhancing lesser prairie chicken habitat on 458,000 acres. However successful these activities are, even these investments won’t be enough to stem the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat given the current rate of conversion.

Although the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is currently up in the air, one thing is certain: increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring basic environmental protections creates incentives for farmers to plow up more grassland and wetlands. The Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment to its Farm Bill that attaches basic environmental requirements to crop insurance subsidies. To protect the lesser prairie chicken and our nation’s other iconic wildlife, conservation compliance must be included in any Farm Bill Congress passes in 2012.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

Sand dune lizard

Pearce to defund lizard and prairie chicken listing

Last month, Representative Pearce of New Mexico sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking it to deny funding to list the sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) and the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) under the Endangered Species Act.  Both species are candidates for listing and have been assigned a listing priority number of 2 out of 12, meaning that the need for listing is extremely high.  Pearce believes that the Fish & Wildlife Service needs to more thoroughly explore voluntary conservation options, such as candidate conservation agreements, before resorting to listing.  To that end, his request does not restrict funding to implement candidate agreements.  You can read more about Pearce’s letter in Defenders’ press release here.

The proposed funding restriction has several problems, including that it has no official end date.  So with the threat of listing far into the future (and perhaps never to materialize), will oil and gas developers truly be motivated to enter into candidate agreements?  After all, although some landowners enter into agreements primary to conserve candidate species, others primarily seek to reduce the regulatory burdens from an eventual listing.  Unless Pearce specifies a timeframe for lifting the funding restriction, we are unlikely to see enough new candidate agreements to reverse the decline of either the sand dune lizard or the prairie chicken. In fact, since 2004, when the lizard was placed on the candidate list, only six private landowners and four oil companies have enrolled in candidate agreements within the lizard’s range.  The Service believes that “there are hundreds of oil and gas operators in the range of the dunes sagebrush lizard, and participation throughout the majority of the dunes sagebrush lizard habitat would be necessary for the conservation of the species.”

Sand dune lizard

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, SouthwestComments (0)


dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

www.defenders.org