The habitat of the nearly extinct little prairie chicken, known for its unique mating dances in the prairies of southeastern New Mexico, expanded by 7,500 acres when the state of New Mexico purchased land to an energy company in the region.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fisheries announced the partnership with NGL Energy Partners to purchase the land to preserve it from development for the attempt to push back lower prairie chicken populations.
The bird was once thought to number in the hundreds of thousands in the American West, with a range extending from southern New Mexico to Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
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Its numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, leading the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing two population areas for protection.
The Southern Distinct Population Segment (DPS), encompassing the range of chicken in New Mexico and Texas has been proposed for an Endangered designation, implying the most stringent federal restrictions in areas where the bird lives or can live, and a northern DPS covering the other three states and northern Texas is threatened – meaning an endangered listing is considered imminent if the numbers do not improve.
In the face of the proposed listing, government agencies and private landowners in the areas sought partnerships to ensure the species was conserved and potentially avoid federal action.
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New Mexico’s agreement with NGL enabled the state to acquire Pipkin Ranch, approximately 40 miles southeast of Fort Sumner, using a combination of company funds and funds generated by the State through the sale of fishing and hunting licenses.
The purchase connects two other existing public properties for the bird, creating more than 10,000 continuous acres dedicated to prairie wildlife conservation, according to the department’s announcement.
Matthias Sayer of NGL said the company has chosen to use a portion of its land holdings in New Mexico for conservation to support environmental causes and advance the state’s conservation goals.
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“Given our land ownership and leases in New Mexico, it was natural and natural that we were engaging with Game and Fish, and started talking about wildlife conservation not just on our properties and those we. manage, but statewide, ”he said.
Game and Fish director Mike Sloane said efforts to conserve the bird and set aside land to do so would help the state meet its goal of retaining 30% of public land by 2030, an initiative announced. earlier this summer by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. .
“This public-private partnership is an example of the positive work that can happen when we all recognize the value of conservation,” Sloane said. “I am delighted to have been a part of this effort and believe it will serve as an example in the future as we begin to implement the 30 x 30 initiative recently put forward by the Governor.”
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Announcing the decree on August 25, Lujan Grisham expressed his support for the public-private partnership allowing landowners to work with state agencies to conserve land and wildlife across the state.
“Voluntary practices implemented by managers, including landowners and tenants on exploited land (both private and public) provide opportunities to support wider restoration activities, improve the health of basins slopes, build resilience in rural and urban communities, add value to the food chain and food security and contribute to the state’s outdoor recreation and ecotourism economy ”, indicates the order.
Game Commission chairperson Sharon Salazar said the Pipkin Ranch would prove valuable to the species, which requires large areas of undisturbed grassland to thrive.
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“Buying and maintaining a property like this ranch is a great example of wildlife habitat conservation. Said Salazar. “To the average eye, Pipkin Ranch may look like a rolling prairie with little value; but for the little prairie chicken, it’s a chance for growth – an important bastion of conservation.
But despite ongoing efforts, conservationists feared the declining prairie chicken numbers would slowly recover.
The Center for Excellence (CEHMM), a Carlsbad-based nonprofit conservation organization, in public comments for the proposed listing, argued that chicken populations had increased in recent years, from 1,125 birds in 2015 to 7,125 in 2020.
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CEHMM facilitates conservation agreements between landowners and government agencies and said its strategic plan calls for the restoration of 15,000 to 30,000 acres of Prairie Chicken (LPC) habitat between 2021 and 2025.
Wayne Walker of LPC Conservation, a conservation bank working to purchase land to set aside for habitat from landowners, said full restoration of the bird will require millions of acres.
He wondered if there was enough public money in government projects to truly and successfully restore the animal to its natural state.
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“It is absolutely not enough. This stuff has to start happening on a scale of 10 to hundreds of thousands of acres, ”he said. “New Mexico has done an amazing job trying to work earlier and harder. They got the money, but it just isn’t enough.
He said he expects the animal to be listed under the Endangered Species Act because sales of land are not offered at “market-based” rates. which means less landowners sign contracts and less land is kept.
“We need to do important and strategic things to save hundreds of thousands of acres in order to transform this bird. Everyone gets a gold star for trying, but nothing gets done, ”Walker said. We know from the population and habitat numbers that it is worse.
“Because we don’t have those performance standards, it’s hard to keep track of what’s working. These old conservation standards were made with the best of intentions. But now, it’s been all this time, the standards need to be improved.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.