WAFWA Reports on 2016 Conservation Efforts, Including Permanent Land Protection

On March 31, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service its third annual report detailing conservation efforts in 2016 on behalf of the lesser prairie-chicken. Among other highlights, WAFWA reported on the purchase of an ecologically significant piece of property in Kansas, which permanently protects nearly 30,000 acres of high-quality lesser prairie-chicken habitat.

WAFWA oversees the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan–a collaborative effort of the state wildlife agencies of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado. It was developed to provide a blueprint for lesser prairie-chicken conservation through voluntary cooperation of landowners, land management agencies, and industry participants.

Brad Odle, right, is one of several WAFWA regional biologists who works with landowners to voluntarily manage rangelands for lesser prairie-chickens.

“As we close out our third year of implementation, we’re really hitting our stride,” said Alexa Sandoval, Director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Chairman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “We are encouraged that despite an oil and gas industry downturn, support for this collaborative conservation approach remains strong. We commend all of our partners for their participation in the range-wide plan.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed the plan in 2013, and as part of the conservation effort, the states agreed to report annually on the overall progress of the plan. Findings for 2016 include:

Land conservation efforts on private land increasing
By the end of 2016, WAFWA was conserving 16 sites totaling 133,703 acres either through fee title ownership or long-term contractual agreements. Three of those sites, totaling 33,053 acres, are permanently conserved through perpetual conservation easements or fee title ownership.

Most significantly, a 29,718-acre land acquisition by WAFWA was finalized in June 2016, permanently protecting high-quality habitat in the sand sagebrush ecoregion. Five lesser prairie-chicken lek sites have been documented on the property and within 3 miles of its perimeter within the last 5 years. WAFWA will continue to manage the property as a working cattle ranch and the grazing rights are currently leased to a private producer.

The acquired property meets all the criteria to be considered a “stronghold”, providing long-term protection to at least 25,000 acres of high-quality habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. Currently only one stronghold site exists throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s five-state range in the southern Great Plains. A second, small acquisition  permanently protects 1,554 acres of shinnery oak habitat.

In addition, 1,781 acres of privately owned native rangeland is now permanently protected in the mixed grass ecoregion. WAFWA purchased a perpetual easement on the property that protects the conservation values of the site. The easement is held by Pheasants Forever.

WAFWA biologist Brad Odle conducts vegetation monitoring in lesser prairie-chicken habitat.

The other 13 sites were 10-year contracts with private landowners, covering 100,650 acres across the range, three of which were executed during 2016.

Lesser prairie-chicken population stable
The annual lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey used to monitor populations was conducted from March through May 2016. The latest survey showed population trends have been stable after five years of data collection. An estimated breeding population of 25,261 birds was documented in 2016, which scientists say is not statistically different from the estimate of 29,162 birds in 2015 given the variability associated with the survey methodology. Aerial surveys for 2017 are underway and will run through mid-May. Results are anticipated in early July.

Cooperative efforts enhancing conservation
A renewed cooperative effort between Natural Resources Conservation Service (through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative), Pheasants Forever, and WAFWA will enhance program promotion, monitoring activities, and conservation planning and delivery. There was also continued effort to work with state wildlife agencies to identify and pursue research and management needs. Those activities included lesser prairie-chicken translocation efforts that moved birds from the shortgrass to sand sagebrush ecoregion

Technology enhances conservation decision-making
During 2016, significant progress was made in database development and accessibility. Highlights include integrating impact and conservation sites into a single database to ensure all habitat impacts are offset by an appropriate conservation site. In addition, a custom website was developed that give participating companies a way to submit and approve new projects as well as view past submissions. WAFWA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can also use the web interface to obtain site-specific summary statistics, habitat mitigation credit balances, and raw data.

Industry projects generate mitigation credit, offset by conservation
In 2016, 114 industry-related projects were processed and mitigated.  WAFWA has focused on committing enrollment and mitigation fees for conservation contracts to benefit the bird and to ensure companies have available mitigation credit to develop as energy prices rebound. In July 2016, WAFWA developed a process to address non-payment of enrollment fees that provides several options to help companies stay enrolled in the program.

Full details are in the annual report available Here

Contact: Roger Wolfe, 785-256-3737