Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ranchers using plan to help endangered species

Federal officials have approved a habitat conservation plan that will let a group of southwestern ranchers improve and maintain their lands while helping several species considered threatened or endangered.

The plan will enable ranchers affiliated with the Malpai Borderlands Group in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico to continue using their lands for cattle-raising activities while providing long-range benefit to plant, fish and animal species that are threatened or endangered.

And it will let them address endangered species issues in a more efficient way than on a project-by-project basis, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokesman Jeff Humphrey.

``It's so hard not to be reactive when you're a landowner when it involves endangered species,'' said Bill McDonald, chairman of the Malpai group, which includes more than 20 of about 30 ranching families spread across 828,000 acres in the two states.

``You seem to have to be on the defensive. It's almost as if you're breathing, you're doing something wrong. And probably, if you have an endangered species on your property, you're doing something right.''

Because members of the group wanted to be more proactive, they began working about five years ago to develop a habitat conservation plan and get Fish and Wildlife approval.

``It's taken several years to get this thing done, but we think we have something now that will stand up for a long time,'' McDonald said. ``Most of the species we have listed in the plan are not listed (as endangered) yet; they're species of concern. But they could be listed in the future.''.

He added: ``We're simply trying to get a handle on what we can do and how we can do it on these ranches so that they can remain viable livelihoods but not jeopardize the species that are either here or could come here.''

Their plan, finally approved in October, is designed to let ranchers improve grasslands and watersheds and enable them to manage their ranching functions. Fish and Wildlife has issued a permit that allows Malpai members to ``take,'' or kill, a threatened or endangered species if it is incidental to their lawful operations and if the taking will not jeopardize the population's survival.

Most of the actions spelled out in the plan are routine rancher activities, such as prescribed burns to rid grasslands of invasive brush, clearing an area for a fence or pipeline or cleaning out a stock tank filled with sediment or silt, but which also may serve as habitat for an endangered species such as the Chiricahua leopard frog.

``The Malpai Borderlands habitat conservation plan is unique in that they're trying to maintain the habitats that they have both for the species and their working animals,'' said Marty Tuegel (TEE-gull), a Fish and Wildlife scientist.

``Their whole program is designed on trying to heal the scars of the past.''

And they're trying to accomplish that by undertaking restoration through such actions as fire to kill invasive trees and shrubs, which also is helpful for watersheds, said Peter Warren, senior field representative for the Nature Conservancy.

``They're trying to keep the landscape open and wild through progressive land management and conservation,'' he said.

McDonald said he hopes the plan works as intended and that other people will follow the example. ``It will take a lot of controversy out of the endangered species issue,'' he said.

Other threatened and endangered species in the Malpai Borderlands include four fish: the Yaqui topminnow, Yaqui chub, beautiful shiner and the Yaqui catfish; the Huachuca water umbel, an aquatic plant; the New Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake, northern Aplomado falcon and the Mexican spotted owl.

The private, nonprofit Malpai group organized in 1994, with its member ranchers having goals of keeping their lands from being subdivided and developed, and of maintaining the productivity of the grasslands.

They've used conservation easements, a legal instrument to keep the lands open and undeveloped in perpetuity. Warren said about 12 of the ranches in the area have executed conservation easement agreements.

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