|Six years of aerial survey data show lesser prairie chicken populations holding steady. A new survey from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) finds the lesser prairie-chicken population is remaining stable, with an increase in the estimated breeding population over the last year. While the agency said fluctuations from year-to-year are to be expected and typically due to changes in weather patterns, the results are a strong indication of conservation efforts underway.
According to Roger Wolfe, WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie Chicken Program Manager, the aerial survey is designed to track trends in the bird’s population stability and the amount of habitat available to it. According to Wolfe, “the bottom line is that the population trend over the last five years indicates a stable population, which is good news for all involved in lesser prairie-chicken conservation efforts.”
The lesser prairie chicken primarily inhabits four ecoregions within Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. This year’s surveys showed the bird’s population increased in all of the ecoregions except the eastern region in New Mexico and one of the regions in the Texas Panhandle.
Zinke names members of sage grouse review team. This week, Interior Secretary Zinke selected 12 department employees to review the department’s sage grouse conservation plan, which protects portions of federal land in 10 Western states that serve as critical habitat for the bird while also fostering increased energy development.
One of Zinke’s appointees is former House staffer Kathleen Benedetto. During her time in Congress, Benedetto advocated for increasing oil and natural gas development on public lands as well as giving local communities more control over which species are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Other members of the sage grouse review team include BLM Acting Deputy Director John Ruhs and Fish and Wildlife Acting Director Greg Sheehan. According to POLITICO, the review team must propose a revised plan that incorporates the potential for oil and natural gas development on federal land in states where the grouse resides. The plan is due to Secretary Zinke by August 6.
House approves cuts to Interior spending. The Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee passed a bill to fund the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior on Wednesday. The cuts provide Interior with $11.9 billion, reducing funding from the $12.3 billion Congress appropriated in FY2017.
More specifically, the Bureau of Land Management would receive $1.2 billion, providing $68.9 million for sage grouse conservation. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service would receive $1.5 billion, about $38 million less than it did last year. The bill also continues a one-year delay on ESA reviews and rule-making for the sage grouse. According to the Washington Examiner, the bill “reduces the endangered species delisting and refuge maintenance backlogs, fight invasive species, and prevent illegal wildlife trafficking and the closure of fish hatcheries.”
Other Interior riders include prohibiting federal protections for gray wolves. As E&E News reports, the current spending prohibits Interior from treating the gray wolf “as an endangered species or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.”
In the News
BLM analyzing huge gas project in prime Wyo. grouse habitat. E&E News (sub req’d). The Bureau of Land Management today released its preliminary analysis of a massive natural gas project in the heart of prime greater sage grouse habitat in Wyoming that calls for using directional drilling to minimize surface disturbance. Jonah Energy LLC has proposed using directional drilling techniques to drill up to 3,500 wells over a 10-year period as part of the Normally Pressured Lance natural gas development project on nearly 141,000 acres of mostly federal lands in southwest Wyoming. BLM today published a draft environmental impact statement in the Federal Register. The agency’s “preferred alternative” in the document calls for dividing the project into three development areas that would focus “development in the least environmentally sensitive areas.”
States meet with Zinke panel on changes to federal plans. E&E News (sub req’d). Members of a panel established by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the Obama administration’s sweeping greater sage grouse conservation plans are meeting this week in Denver with Western state leaders to gather feedback about the plans and how they should be revised, sources said. The meetings today and tomorrow are closed to the public and are intended for the members of the review panel that Zinke ordered last month to get input from the states. The meetings are being conducted by the federal-state sage grouse task force led by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) that helped the Obama administration finalize the federal plans in September 2015. The federal plans amended 98 Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land-use plans to include sage grouse conservation measures covering nearly 70 million acres in 10 Western states. The plans helped convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the greater sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act but have been criticized by some states and other stakeholders as too rigid and restrictive.
California water bill passes House, but Democrats vow to fight it in the Senate. Los Angeles Times. Some of California’s decisions about how to use its water would be relegated to the federal government under a bill passed by the House on Wednesday. Republicans say the bill will bring more water to the parched Central Valley. California’s Democratic senators have promised to fight the bill in the Senate because it weakens California’s ability to manage its own resources. … Democrats say it would preempt California water laws and impede the Endangered Species Act by waiving some of the most stringent environmental reviews required by the law. California’s congressional delegation has long disagreed over how to respond to the the state’s water needs, often pitting protecting endangered species and preserving waterways against agricultural demands and drying wells.
Supreme Court is asked to take hot-button habitat fight. E&E News (sub req’d). Property rights advocates today asked the Supreme Court to take up a hot-button case over critical habitat for an endangered frog. At issue is the extent to which the federal government can designate critical habitat even if the endangered animal doesn’t currently occupy that area. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld the Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a private tract in Louisiana where the dusky gopher frog hasn’t been seen for decades. “If regulators get away with this land grab in Louisiana, no one’s property, anywhere, is safe,” said Reed Hopper, a senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation. “Regulators could impose restrictions on anyone’s land — merely by claiming it could someday, in some hypothetical way, be used for the recovery of some species that doesn’t currently call it home.” The dusky gopher frog was historically found in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Today there are about 100 frogs left — all in Mississippi.
Controversy stalks red wolf protection plan. E&E News (sub req’d). The Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans to change management of the endangered red wolf in North Carolina have set packs of people howling. In two hearings last month and in more than 11,000 written comments, an energized public has alternately blasted and embraced a proposed strategic shift that would blend the wolf’s wild and captive populations. It’s the latest round in a species recovery wrangle that’s lasted decades. “We are deeply concerned about the proposed drastic changes,” Georgia Hancock of the Animal Welfare Institute said at a June 6 hearing in Swan Quarter, N.C., adding that the proposal would “essentially throw in the towel on the species recovery in the wild.” Others insist, with equal vehemence, that federal officials are right to adjust their approach and priorities. “The schools are crumbling and everything else, and we are spending millions in these communities not to the benefit of the residents or the children, but to the benefit of an animal,” North Carolina resident Uli Bennewitz said at a June 8 hearing in Manteo, N.C.