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New Agreement To Help Texas Landowners Conserve Lesser Prairie Chicken
Joint News Release: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
AUSTIN, Texas — A new agreement between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is expected to help private landowners conserve the lesser prairie chicken, a rare bird whose fate is tied to the health of grassland ecosystems that sustain many other wildlife species.
A signing ceremony for the agreement will take place at the beginning of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Commission meeting on the morning of Thursday, November 2 at TPWD headquarters in Austin.
By undertaking voluntary conservation measures on their property under the new agreement, landowners will be assured that no further land use restrictions or conditions will be required from them if the lesser prairie chicken is ultimately listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The bird is currently a candidate for listing.
"The proposed Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) encourages beneficial habitat management activities among private landowners on a voluntary basis,” said the USFWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin N. Tuggle, Ph.D. “The Service believes there is a need for a CCAA to increase economic incentives and remove legal disincentives for landowners to allow candidate and/or listed species on their property. These types of incentive based programs go a long way to contributing to species conservation and recovery.”
Under the new agreement, TPWD can issue a one-page Certificate of Inclusion signed by a landowner who wishes to voluntarily commit to undertake certain conservation actions outlined in their TPWD-approved wildlife management plan. Such landowner actions would include measures such as brush control, grazing management, prescribed burning, and allowing periodic monitoring on their property.
Approximately 15 Texas landowners already have working relationships with TPWD for grassland conservation that benefits lesser prairie chickens. In addition, the USFWS has used its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to restore or enhance lesser prairie chicken habitat on approximately 82,631 acres in the Texas Panhandle. These projects have involved 43 different landowners in 11 counties, all of which could qualify for inclusion under the CCAA.
“We have Texas landowners who already qualify to sign up under this new agreement, ranchers who are voluntarily conserving and managing grasslands in ways that benefit prairie chickens and other species,” said Mike Berger, TPWD wildlife division director. “Over time, we think this will be an important additional tool for Texas private landowners, many of whom have demonstrated the desire and ability to do the right thing for wildlife and habitat.”
Since more than 95 percent of the Texas landscape is privately owned, the voluntary cooperation of ranchers and other rural landowners is considered essential for wildlife conservation in the state.
Lesser prairie chickens were once found throughout short and mid-grass prairies in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Since 1963 scientists believe prairie chicken numbers have declined 80 percent nationwide due to habitat loss and fragmentation, population isolation, drought and land-use and land-cover changes. Today in Texas, lesser prairie chickens are currently found only in two isolated areas in the northeastern and southwestern corners of the Panhandle region.
In 1997, the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group was formed to prepare a range-wide conservation strategy to coordinate efforts among the five states with occupied prairie chicken habitat.
“Prairie chicken conservation equals grassland conservation,” said Heather Whitlaw, TPWD wildlife biologist in Lubbock. “Landowners who provide good habitat for this bird are helping many other grassland-dependent species, such as pronghorn antelope and many grassland birds. Further, prairie conservation equals water conservation. Restoring and managing the native grasslands of the Texas Panhandle, including regions with Playa Lakes, can provide vital recharge sources for the Ogallala Aquifer.”
John Hughes, USFWS biologist in Canadian, Texas, added that “No one agency or group can accomplish lesser prairie chicken recovery alone and it will take the combined efforts of TPWD, USFWS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others to restore this magnificent bird to its former range.”
Biologists say what is needed to help the bird is to create and/or maintain large blocks of suitable habitat. To do this, land managers should provide low vegetation for breeding grounds, tall bunch grasses/shrubs for nesting cover, areas with overhead cover that are open underneath for birds to raise their chicks, a year round food supply and protection from weather. All these elements should be within three-to-five miles of the spring breeding areas.
In recent years, the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service has worked with other agencies, including TPWD and USFWS, to establish a Wildlife Emphasis Area within the federal EQIP cost-share program, with $135,000 set aside for the lesser prairie chicken habitat conservation in 2006. Texas has also increased lesser prairie chicken research and program funding for projects such as land cover and land use mapping, aerial survey evaluations, population-level modeling, and population surveys. The department also supports landowner initiatives such as the Texas Panhandle Prescribed Burn Association.
For more information about the new Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for the lesser prairie chicken in Texas, interested landowners should contact Whitlaw at (806) 742-4968 or Hughes at (806) 323-6636.
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