The plan to keep regulation of the region’s agriculture, oil and natural gas and power industries out of the control of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking flight.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a draft rule in the federal Register on Wednesday that is based on a conservation plan created by a coalition of five states to protect and expand the habitat the lesser prairie chicken needs to increase its population.
“Comments will be accepted until Jan. 10,” said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Lesli Gray.
The rule shields producers enrolled in the plan and operating in compliance with it from punishment for the accidental death or disturbance of the bird the EPA has targeted for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“If we can pull this off, I can guarantee it will be an unprecedented attempt to avoid listing this bird,” said Matt Wagner, deputy director of the wildlife division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. “There’s a lot of science and economics that make sense.”
A final ruling on the listing is due in March.
The plan not only sets up a payment plan for industries to fund habitat improvement by landowners but also defines the areas where actions should be focused based on bird population counts.
The department already has endorsed the plan in concept, and this is a concrete step to implement it.
The rangewide conservation plan is available for viewing on the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agency’s website at www.wafwa.org.
The goal is for a 10-year average of 67,000 birds across the range that covers the Texas Panhandle, east-central New Mexico, the Oklahoma Panhandle, southeast Colorado and western Kansas. The 2012 estimate of prairie chickens was 34,500. The 2013 estimate was 17,700, said Sean Kyle, a wildlife biologist at TPWD and leader of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Interstate Working Group. Scientists attribute at least some of the decline to the ongoing drought.
“A threatened listing could bring on significant regulations and possible civil and criminal penalties,” Kyle said.
Some of the fees required of industry include $2.25 per leased acre for oil and gas producers in the focus zones and for wind farms. For example, if a wind farm covers 15,000 acres, the cost would be $33,750 annually for three years. Electricity transmission lines would cost $20,000 annually for three years, and cellphone or radio towers would cost $15,000 a year over the period.
The plan includes other industry requirements such as burying power lines within 1.25 miles of a breeding area used in the past five years, noise restrictions and a ban on operations and maintenance that are not emergencies from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. March 1 to July 15 in the vicinity of the same breeding areas.
“The timing restrictions are focused on the breeding season,” Kyle said.
Farmers and ranchers paid by industry contributions will use the money to create habitat, and payment will be based on the quality of that habitat. They can enter into a five-year agreement or permanent easement.
Restoration of habitat includes actions such as reseeding with native grasses, brush control including prescribed burns and controlled grazing, Kyle said.
While WAFWA is hiring personnel to run the program, state agencies are handling the work. Email Kyle at seankyle@tpwd
.texas.gov with questions about enrollment, siting of projects and mitigation of existing impacts. For answers on planning projects to best comply with the program, email julie email@example.com.
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