As agencies like the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation continue to place emphasis on restoring and preserving dwindling lesser prairie chicken habitat, landowners in focal areas have some important reasons to get involved.
Wildlife officials say private landowners are key to wildlife conservation in Oklahoma, since about 97 percent of the land in Oklahoma is privately owned. At its November meeting, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission approved two new measures intended to draw more landowners into the fight to conserve the lesser prairie chicken while also protecting them if the bird is placed on the endangered species list.
One of the measures offers stewardship payments to agricultural producers for work done to protect and expand habitat for the rare upland bird. The new program is known as the Wildlife Credits Program and is part of an agreement between the Wildlife Department, Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.
According to Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, the program basically pays agricultural producers to perform certain management practices and avoid others that would negatively impact the habitat of the lesser prairie chicken.
The program will be funded by money from the Association of Conservation Districts combined with portions of donations made by OG&E to offset habitat loss caused by two of the company’s wind farm developments in northwest Oklahoma – the OU Spirit Wind Farm and the 151 MW Keenan Phase II wind farm from which OG&E is purchasing 100 percent of the energy produced.
“Any time we can combine our resources, we’re a lot more effective together than we are apart,” said Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.
The other measure, as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances Program (CCAA), can provide landowners with assurances against certain liabilities and federal restrictions in the event that the lesser prairie chicken is listed as an endangered species.
The CCAA is a voluntary program, and no incentive payments to landowners are issued by the Wildlife Department for participation in the program. Rather, landowners agree to perform certain habitat work to benefit lesser prairie chickens in exchange for the assurances provided under the program. When a species is listed as federally endangered or threatened, additional federal regulations and oversight can apply to landowners that may affect what happens on their property or how it may be used. Additionally, conservation measures accomplished through the program could help altogether halt the listing of the species.
“First and foremost, the goal is to conserve the lesser prairie chicken and keep it off the endangered species list,” said Richard Hatcher, director of the Wildlife Department. “But we also would like our landowners to get involved with conservation and in turn receive some federally-backed assurances in the event the lesser prairie chicken is declared endangered.”
According to Dixie Bounds, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lesser prairie chicken has been a candidate for listing on the endangered species list since 1998, and since 2008 has been a category 2 species, which is the highest level of priority given to a species before being listed.
“There are several threats that are eminent,” said Bounds. There’s the loss of all the Conservation Reserve Program acres, the multi-state transmission lines, the development of wind power, and overall the biggest issue is the fragmentation of habitat.”
The Wildlife Credits Program and CCAA are two more tools in an arsenal of resources aimed at conserving prairie chickens. Other tools such as the Oklahoma Spatial Planning Tool are being used to help energy developers identify key prairie chicken habitat before development. Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and agreements between landowners and the Wildlife Department all stand to benefit key habitat and the prairie chickens that rely on them for survival.
The lesser prairie chicken is an upland game bird found in northwest Oklahoma, but the species has struggled to survive in its native habitat due to habitat fragmentation and land use changes over time. The birds avoid vertical structure, such as wind turbines and fences, as they may perceive them as perches for potential predators.
For more information about the lesser prairie chicken, log on to wildlifedepartment.com.
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