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Burrowing Owl, Nevada - Photo Credit Tim Torrell

Eyed Trout Eggs, Tonto Creek Hatchery AZ - Photo Credit George Andrejko

Humpback Whales, Orca, Alaska - Photo Credit Sandstrom, Riley Woodford

 
 
 

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WAFWA's Lesser Prairie-Chicken Program Update

Read here about the latest updates to WAFWA's Lesser Prairie-Chicken Program. 

Since 2013, WAFWA has been implementing two important programs to help conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. The first is the Range-wide Conservation Plan for the species. The Range-wide Conservation Plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA and the state wildlife agencies of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. It was developed to ensure the conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation of landowners and industry. Voluntary industry contributions support conservation actions implemented by participating private landowners. While the species was listed as threatened between 2014 and 2016[1], the Range-wide Conservation Plan was the basis for a broad exemption from take prohibition provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, often called a “4d Rule.”

The second program is a Range-wide Oil and Gas Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for the lesser prairie chicken. Industry participants who enroll in the CCAA are protected by the CCAA if the lesser prairie-chicken is listed as threatened or endangered in the future. It relies heavily on implementation of the mitigation framework within the Range-wide Conservation Plan. The CCAA is authorized by a permit issued by USFWS that is held by WAFWA. The permit will provide incidental take authorization if and when the lesser prairie-chicken is listed again. The CCAA describes the conservation actions participants voluntarily agree to implement as part of the mitigation framework that allows them to continue oil and gas operations. These conservation actions are designed to provide conservation benefits to lesser prairie-chicken and their habitat. Both programs, the Range-wide Conservation Plan and the Oil and Gas CCAA, are implemented with the close coordination and support of USFWS.

In 2019, after five years of implementing both programs, WAFWA began a review of these programs to assess finances, regulatory compliance, biological effectiveness, and administrative efficiency. The first part of this review was a financial audit of the CCAA program commissioned by WAFWA to an independent financial specialist in species mitigation programs. The audit results were presented to WAFWA directors at WAFWA’s annual summer meeting held in July 2019 in Manhattan, Kansas.

The audit identified a number of issues for WAFWA to address to improve its operational structure and financial management. Based on the audit’s recommendations, WAFWA immediately took several actions to improve its short-term financial situation and organizational structure, including measures to reduce the cost of administering the CCAA. WAFWA continues to implement new procedures and approaches to address the recommendations of the audit. These measures have included:

  • WAFWA modified its bylaws and organizational structure and established an Executive Director position to provide improved oversight and accountability to the lesser prairie-chicken programs. WAFWA believes the new structure will streamline program decisions and provide leadership for program implementation.
  • WAFWA will prepare a business plan specifically for a realigned CCAA, separate and apart from the business plan for the Range-wide Conservation Plan, which will incorporate any necessary changes to the financial and conservation aspects of the CCAA to ensure long-term sustainability and regulatory assurances.
  • Pending completion of the revised business plan, WAFWA reduced administrative costs through staff reductions, lower data management costs, and a greater reliance on state fish and wildlife agencies for direct support.
  • WAFWA is forming an investment committee of financial experts to advise WAFWA’s Executive Director regarding the management of the endowment funds that support lesser prairie-chicken conservation under the programs.
  • WAFWA will create a separate annual report on the status of the CCAA program. This stand-alone annual report will help to increase transparency in the CCAA program and allow stakeholders to better evaluate its compliance and effectiveness. 

WAFWA continued its thorough review of the CCAA program in December 2019, focusing on an assessment of the compliance and effectiveness of the CCAA. WAFWA hired a consultant with a national reputation in designing and assessing species mitigation programs, to lead the assessment. This consultant is currently working closely with WAFWA, USFWS, oil and gas industry participants, and landowners to assess the long-term regulatory assurances and financial sustainability of the CCAA. WAFWA anticipates completing this review by the summer of 2020. It would then implement these recommendations as part of a broader “realignment” process to improve the long-term implementation and effectiveness of the Range-wide Conservation Plan and CCAA for the lesser prairie chicken.

The realignment process will occur as the USFWS evaluates whether to propose the lesser prairie-chicken for listing. A proposed listing announcement is anticipated in May 2021. If USFWS proposes to list the lesser prairie-chicken, a final listing decision will be made about one year later.

[1] In September 2015 a federal court in Texas overturned the listing decision. The USFWS officially removed the species from the list of threatened species in July 2016.  The lesser prairie chicken has since been under review by USFWS, triggered by another lawsuit on the de-listing.

Posted by WAFWA at 4/8/2020 8:34:00 PM
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