Incidental take rule for lesser prairie chicken draws ire
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Environmentalists are concerned a new rule under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed lesser prairie chicken listing will weaken protections for the bird if it's listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The special rule, commonly referred to as the 4D rule, says incidental take, or inadvertent killing, of a lesser prairie chicken would not violate the federal act if the take happens through either conservation programs or agricultural activities.
The bird, native to New Mexico and four other states and known for its bizarre mating dance, is no stranger to controversy and its proposed listing has been the concern of environmentalists and landowners alike.
Those who oppose its listing say it can impact thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industry due to additional regulations that will be enforced to protect it. Landowners feel regulations will also infringe on their property rights.
One conservation organization feels the new rule defeats the purpose of listing the bird to protect it because it said it would allow habitat-destroying activities to continue in the bird's range.
"We're disappointed the (USFWS) is using a rule that is supposed to enhance wildlife conservation to lock the lesser prairie chicken into small areas of habitat, preclude their recovery, and give blanket approval to industrial activities that are pushing them to extinction," said Jay Lininger with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Experts say the rule has been misunderstood as giving landowners free reign to kill the bird if it is on their property, something that Willard Heck finds ridiculous.
"That rule allows you to carry out your normal activities without being a threat to the bird," said Heck, a Roosevelt County rancher who has worked with conservation methods for the bird.
Heck says that under this ruling, farmers will be able to go about their farming activities and if that happens to harm or hurt the bird, they would not be at fault.
"You're not allowed to just go out there and kill chickens; it just gives some leeway. It's called incidental take," Heck said. "That's the flexibility in the proposed ruling. You can continue to carry out normal day-to-day activities."
The USFWS is expected to announce its decision on whether to list the bird in September and is currently reviewing conservation agreements and a five-state plan that include New Mexico and outlines conservation efforts while allowing business to grow.
Heck says he hopes the proposed rule isn't an indication that the area's conservation efforts will go to waste.
"If we can get all the work done we said we can do, it would be best if it doesn't get listed," Heck said.
He says once the bird is listed as threatened, local control would be lost to the federal government. Heck feels locals can hold their own and practice their own conservation methods.
Curry County Commissioner Wendell Bostwick is concerned that this rule is a cop-out in an attempt to assuage landowners if the bird does get listed.
He said the listing would still bring an onslaught of regulations even with the proposed rule.
"It is never about the bird per se, it's about the regulations they pass to protect it," Bostwick said.
Bostwick says he's still hoping for a favorable outcome in September and is waiting to meet with the USFWS so that it can review local data he and others have collected to prove the bird is not threatened. He says he's also talked with state and U.S. senators and representatives to make sure locals get a fair shake and a voice in the listing decision.
"We have a lot of findings that flaws their science," Bostwick said. "We just want our chance to be heard."