Prairie chickens given safe haven

A nature gorup has purchased a pair of rancxhes near Milesnad in hopes of further protecting the lesser prairie chicken indigenous to the area. (File photo)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

New Mexico’s rare lesser prairie chickens just got 12,000 acres safer.

The New Mexico Nature Conservancy recently acquired the Pearce and Creamer ranches in southeast New Mexico in the hopes of preserving the natural habitat of the nearly endangered species.

The Creamer Ranch has one of the densest populations of lesser prairie chickens in the world, according to Bob Findling, director of conservation projects for the New Mexico chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

“Increasingly there has been an accelerating number of conversions of ranch lands into irrigated agriculture in that area,” Findling said.

The indigenous chicken has been attracting attention from ecologists for years. Now they are getting noticed by the oil, gas, and ranching industries as well, said David Coss, director of field operations for the State Land Office.

“We’ve been participating in a working group for a year and half now that includes oil and gas industries, and federal agencies,” Coss said.

Findling described the economic implications of having the lesser chicken listed as endangered as “onerous.”

“It creates a lot of other constraints on land management, particularly as it relates to public lands,” Findling said. “I think that anyone who has a concern regarding protecting the economy over there should have a concern about preserving some of these species that are candidates for listing.”

If listed as endangered, the federal government would have the right to take public land and use it as habitat for the bird. Some of that public land is also leased for oil and gas drilling, Coss said.

The negative economic consequences of having the prairie chickens listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a major consideration for industry groups such as New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), said Erik Nelson, district manger of the State Land Office in Clovis.

Coss said the various agencies and environmental groups are working together to keep the lesser prairie chickens off the list. From the perspective of the environmentalists, protecting private lands is good for the population of the rare bird. The oil and gas industries do not want the federal government restricting leasing rights, making some lands off limits that support the birds’ habitat, Coss said.

The working group also helps guard against irrational decision making, said Bob Gallagher, president of NMOGA.

“We believe that when the governmental agencies look at the facts, they will see that the oil and gas industry has very little to do with the movement of, the existence of, or the extinction of the lesser prarie chicken,” Gallagher said.

Rapid mesquite brush growth across southeastern New Mexico has put the chickens’ grassland habitats in danger.

The Pearce property is being treated with a herbicide to push back the invasive mesquite growth occuring there, according to a press release from the State Land Office.

The lesser prarie chicken populations started showing decline in the early 1900s, but it was not until the mid-90s that government agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took action to protect the birds, said Dawn Davis, a wildlife biologist at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

With the cooperation of private land owners and the efforts of the nature conservancy, New Mexico is now seeing the population of lesser prarie chickens increase, she said.