Friday, August 22, 2008

NM Game and Fish's version of Catch-22

It turns out that 8-8-08 really was a lucky day, at least for New Mexico's lesser prairie chicken population. On that day, the news headlines proclaimed "State puts prairie chicken hunt on hold," except the actual headline should have been "What was the state Game and Fish Department thinking?" I guess the thought from the department is that there certainly should be lesser numbers of the species.

Ten years ago, in an effort to increase the prairie chicken population in southeastern New Mexico, the state declared millions of acres off-limits during the bird's 90-day mating season. Fast forward to July 2008, when through some unexplained reasoning the Game and Fish Department recommended and sought approval from the Game Commission for a nine-day fall hunt. And it was approved! The decision was done without consulting any of the working groups involved, which includes the Bureau of Land Management which was caught totally by surprise by the July decision.

Fortunately, an outcry from a wide group of people ranging from environmentalists to oil and gas companies prompted Game and Fish to reconsider the planned hunt. The department issued a news release in early August stating that permits will not be issued while a decision to list the species on the federal endangered list is pending. We understand the role of the Game and Fish department as it pertains to the species population and the department's desire to foster hunting in New Mexico, but not a bird that is on the threatened list of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.

Why are the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association members involved in this issue? It's simple, we practice what we preach, we are indeed "good neighbors," and that extends to our state's native wildlife. The New Mexico oil and gas industry works with state and federal agencies as well as conservation groups to protect all species of wildlife.

The industry and the state of New Mexico lose millions of dollars ever year during the 90-day prairie chicken mating season. Together we all worked hard to raise those numbers. Consider this: currently there are about 8,000 prairie chickens in the state and seven years ago there were just 3,000.

How did the state oil and gas industry assist in saving the prairie chicken for future generations? Our member companies participated in land management planning efforts. The companies modified their development practices and protected certain areas where the species live. The industry also contributed financial assistance for projects to enhance habitat conditions, provided funding for legacy oil field restoration and contributed dollars to research.

If the lesser prairie chicken is put on the federal endangered list, nobody wins. Ranchers, farmers, the state oil and gas industry all lose, and in the end all the citizens of New Mexico are harmed. The economic effect from the loss of jobs, lost production and lost revenue would be hundreds of millions of dollars and would ripple across the state. All because the New Mexico Game and Fish Department decided that there are way too many lesser prairie chickens in the state. Thank goodness wiser heads prevailed and stopped the agency from sending the wrong message to the general public. I trust we will soon not see a fishing season for the silvery minnow?

Bob Gallagher is president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and is also president of the NMSU Board of Regents.

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