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Marian Lyman Kirst | Mar 19, 2012 04:00 PM

For two imperiled New Mexico species -- a spiny, sand dune-loving lizard and a small, feather-footed prairie chicken with an elaborate courtship dance -- big things are happening.

On March 2nd, New Mexico state land commissioner, Ray Powell, made history when, with the stroke of a pen, he added 248,000 acres of state trust lands in the southeastern part of the state to a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) aimed at protecting the imperiled sand dune lizard and lesser prairie chicken.  It's the single largest chunk of land ever enrolled in a CCA, a conservation program that gives landowners incentives to voluntarily improve habitat for species that are considered candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. 

LPC

"There are probably no other sign-ups in state land offices in the Western U.S. that would equal 1/100th of what was just done," says Doug Burger, Pecos District Manager for the Bureau of Land Management. "It's massive."

The lesser prairie chicken occurs in parts of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma while the sand dune lizard is found only in the shinnery-oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and Texas.

The New Mexico CCA for the two species also includes a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) that applies specifically to private and state landowners and gives these non-federal users "assurances" from the Fish & Wildlife Service that they won't face additional land-use restrictions if a species is listed or be responsible for habitat improvements beyond what the agreement already requires. Because federal agencies have legal obligations to protect listed species, the Service can only provide these "assurances" to CCAA participants. For federal landowners, such as the BLM, and land users, such as oil and gas companies, who enroll under a CCA, the agency offers up a "high degree of certainty" that additional conservation measures will not be required if the candidate species is listed. The conservation measures participants in both programs can take include installing markers barbed-wire fences to help prairie chickens avoid fatal collisions during migration, removing invasive mesquite from the lizard's sensitive dune habitat; minimizing habitat disturbance for both species by co-locating oil wells and pads; and burying any new power lines that lie within 2 miles of prairie-chicken-occupied habitat (to name just a few).

The agreements -- which were formalized in 2008 and developed cooperatively by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, BLM, and the Center for Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management (CEHMM), a New Mexico-based non-profit organization focused on reducing the impact of hazardous materials on the environment -- are the first of their kind to protect species across both public and private land, reported HCN in 2009.

An integrated, landscape-scale approach makes sense for Western states like New Mexico because "most ranches in the West are a combination of state, federal and private land," says Burger. What's more, some ranchers graze cattle on both federal and non-federal land and many property owners have "mixed estates," where surface ownership is private but subsurface minerals belong to the feds. And after all, Burger says, the prairie chickens and lizards don't have the luxury of knowing where they are standing; whether it's state, federal or private land.

The general idea behind CCAs and CCAAs is to encourage companies and individuals (such as oil and gas developers and cattle ranchers) to voluntarily protect and recover imperiled species to prevent Endangered Species Act listings, which often restrict industry or landowner activities.

SDL

Yet even with the plans' built-in incentives, participants in New Mexico were slow to enroll.  Just a handful of companies and landowners took the plunge in 2008 when the agreements -- which had been in the works for nearly 10 years -- got their start. Officials worried that such "cautiousness could stymie the program, at least in the short term," we reported in 2009.  

Burger attributes some of that sluggishness to Western landowners' wariness of government, as well as to the struggling economy. But he also admits that the initial agreement was too bureaucratic, "clunky, like a computer from 20 years ago, and not very user-friendly." 

Officials worked with oil and gas companies to amend the agreements in ways that would increase their efficacy and, in the companies mind, reduce as much as possible the threat of listing.  "What shocked us was that some of the things they told us to do were even more restrictive than what we were planning to do," says Burger --  setting up habitat accounts, for example; reserves into which participating companies deposit funds for habitat conservation projects for the two species. It was the companies that suggested paying $2 per acre or a $20,000 minimum to set up a habitat account and to make their agreements binding for at least three years. This meant that officials would have immediate and consistent funds with which to work on conservation projects. "They knew [the Service] didn’t have the money to do this kind of work," says Burger, and they "understood that it would take time to demonstrate the recovery of the species...that it's long-term management versus just a one-time shot." 

pumjack

A few key companies -- including Concho Resources Inc. and Devon Energy Corporation -- elected to "wade into the water" with the feds early on, says Burger. Those companies realized that weaving conservation measures into their everyday operations now could save them time and money later because if they did nothing and the species were listed, there was a good chance they would have to halt or significantly modify their operations -- a huge time and money suck.

These companies then went to informational meetings and publicly touted the value of the agreement, says Burger. As word spread, more and more companies began to sign on, most in just the last year and half. Today, four years after the agreement was formalized, 29 companies and 35 landowners have enrolled 1.5 million acres of New Mexico range land and nearly 815,000 acres of industry-owned or leased property. And in the last year, says Burger, companies have collectively contributed $3 million to habitat accounts, an amount he expects to grow to $9 million over the next two years. $9 million for conservation for these species, "That's pretty darn impressive," Burger says. "The federal government and oil and gas are usually pretty adversarial, but (here in New Mexico) we are really blessed to have strong working relationship with industry."

Others are more skeptical about the sudden upswing in participation. "Why the wait until now?" asks Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians. "Probably because the species are now months away from getting a listing." As part of a settlement agreement the Service signed with WildEarth Guardians, the agency agreed to address the status of more than 250 candidate species, including the lesser prairie chicken and sand dune lizard, which are both scheduled for listing decisions this year.

The delays in enrollment "cause one to question just how committed (the participants) really are to conservation, how thoroughly they will implement those voluntary measures," says Salvo, hinting at the growing concern among wildlife groups that voluntary conservation measures taken in response to federal listing threats may not be terribly effective. From The New York Times:

[A] case in point is the Gunnison sage grouse, where a number of voluntary CCA-type efforts have failed to stop the bird's continued decline in Colorado and Utah amid habitat disruptions from oil and gas wells.

“If governments, landowners and land users did all that is required to protect and recover a candidate species -- as if it were listed -- then the Service might find little need to actually list the species,” says Salvo. But he's not convinced that the New Mexico agreements do all that is required. "What if it is determined that what land users and land owners have agreed to do is not sufficient to conserve the species and they continue to decline?" What happens then, asks Salvo?

Regardless, incentive-based conservation seems a huge step in the right direction.  It's preventative medicine, as opposed to the emergency room-treatment that so often defines species conservation in this country.

As for Burger, he's not surprised that not everyone's as thrilled about the agreement as he is. "Do we ever make everybody happy? That hardly ever happens anymore." Multiple-use management, he says, "is not for sissies."

Marian Lyman Kirst is an editorial fellow for High Country News

Images courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and flickr user J.N. Stuart

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