Sunday, May 4, 2008

BLM: Plan will protect prairie chicken, lizard habitat in NM

Two rare species found in southeastern New Mexico's oil and gas country will have added protections under a conservation plan approved by the Bureau of Land Management.

About 465 square miles of habitat for the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard will be protected, and the agency has expanded restrictions on drilling activity during the prairie chicken's mating season in an effort to boost the bird's numbers.

For Linda Rundell, state director for the BLM in New Mexico, the additional protections for the prairie chicken have been a long time coming. As a biologist more than 25 years ago, she spent time surveying the prairie chickens and their habitat.

"That was a long time ago and it has taken all of this time for the realization that we've got to get serious about doing what we can to improve the habitat of these birds or they're going to be in more jeopardy than they are," she said.

The conservation plan, approved Friday, was developed during two years of discussion and negotiation among the agency, state biologists, conservationists, ranchers and the oil and gas industry.

The goal, Rundell said, is to help both the prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard stabilize their populations—and hopefully increase their numbers—so they won't have to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservation groups say recent evidence shows the lesser prairie chicken has suffered serious declines in parts of its range in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Scientists have pointed to habitat loss and fragmentation, population isolation, drought and changes in land usage.

Rundell characterized New Mexico's efforts to help the prairie chicken as "an absolute big, big deal" given that much of the habitat in other states is on private land and has been turned into cropland.

The sand dune lizard, found only in New Mexico and a small portion of West Texas, is on the endangered species candidate list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been given funding this year for research to determine whether the lizard should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The process usually takes about a year.

Under the BLM's plan, an area of critical environmental concern has been set aside for the prairie chicken. The agency said no oil and gas leasing will be allowed in this area.

Areas of occupied habitat for the prairie chicken and the lizard also will be off limits to new oil and gas activity, said Tony Herrell, BLM's deputy director for minerals in New Mexico.

In areas of existing operation, Herrell said drilling activity is restricted during the prairie chicken's mating season—March through June—and noise is limited so the birds can hear each other's calls.

Still, environmentalists contend that the two species warrant even greater protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians said all new oil and gas leasing and drilling as well as grazing and herbicide treatments within the species' habitats would have to be stopped to ensure "effective conservation."

As for the oil and gas industry, producers aren't "doing cartwheels" over the new plan but they believe it's a fair way to keep the species from getting to the point where they would have to be listed as threatened or endangered, said Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

"I thought that was a balanced approach to address the concerns of environmentalists and also be sure that ongoing very important oil and gas operations can continue under some different set of rules," he said.

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