March 6, 2014

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Approves Oil and Gas Industry Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances

Private companies in five states have now enrolled more than 2.5 million acres in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, representing oil and gas, pipelines, electric transmission and wind energy, resulting in nearly $15 million for habitat conservation over the next three years. Added to more than 1.3 million acres of oil and gas leases under conservation agreements in New Mexico, this brings the total industry commitment close to 4 million acres.

Range-wide plan enrollment now includes 14 electric transmission companies, representing most of the electric grid across the species’ range in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Also, eight oil and gas companies have enrolled more than 2 million acres across all five states. And, two wind energy developments and one natural gas pipeline company have signed on, with more in the process of enrollment.

Last Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had signed a Range-wide Oil and Gas Industry Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the western association, under the range-wide plan developed by WAFWA and state wildlife agencies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The service also announced an accompanying Environmental Assessment. The service has proposed listing the bird as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, with a final determination expected by March 31.

“Under the range-wide plan, a broad coalition of government, industry, agriculture and conservation interests is demonstrating unprecedented collaboration, showing we can take care of this bird and its prairie habitat without needing to list it,” said Bill Van Pelt, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) grassland coordinator.

“When you consider all acreage enrolled in the range-wide plan, plus various CCAAs, Farm Bill programs, and other conservation programs across the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, the total area is about the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. This is also approximately half the size of the species’ current range. We believe this sets a record for conservation delivery on predominantly private land for a species under listing consideration.”

The range-wide CCAA provides another option for oil and gas companies, which can also enroll directly in the range-wide plan. CCAAs are prelisting conservation tools, where enrollment must occur prior to a listing decision. Unlike the CCAA, enrollment under the range-wide plan can occur at any time before or after the listing decision.

Enrolling companies get regulatory assurances through a special USFWS rule or a CCAA permit, so that if the species is listed the companies have a pathway to continue operations and development in the region. The companies agree to pay modest enrollment fees, follow a list of guidelines to minimize impacts on the bird, and agree to pay for impacts they cannot avoid. The money goes to farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect and restore habitat for the bird. 

Complementing the range-wide plan, landowner CCAAs offer legal assurances for farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. These cover a total of nearly 2.3 million acres across the three states. Landowners in Colorado and Kansas, who do not have access to a ranching CCAA, can enroll their lands under the RWP and receive the same assurances.

The range-wide plan includes habitat management goals and conservation practices to be applied throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, guided by the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT) online database and mapping system.

The range-wide plan can be viewed on the WAFWA website. Industry representatives with questions about the plan may contact Sean Kyle, chairman of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group, at sean.kyle@wafwa.org. Farmers, ranchers, and landowners may contact their local state fish and wildlife agency biologist to answer questions about enrollment in the plan.