THE U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that farmers, ranchers and landowners who voluntarily participate in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to protect and increase lesser prairie-chicken populations will not be subject to additional regulations as a result of the species' listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee May 7, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack encouraged farmers and ranchers in areas with lesser prairie-chicken habitat to work with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service offices to develop conservation plans.
Vilsack said the agreement provides 30 years of regulatory certainty to those who are deemed to be in compliance with the conservation plan certified by USDA.
The population of the lesser prairie-chicken declined to a record low of 17,616 birds last year, almost 50% less than the estimated 2012 population, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) report.
Producers participating in CRP in lesser prairie-chicken states — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico — are taking steps to help restore the lesser prairie-chicken population, such as planting native grasses and vegetation to enhance nesting and brooding habitats.
Meanwhile, the Farm Service Agency and FWS developed a biological opinion to ensure CRP compliance with ESA provisions. This biological opinion provides predictability for CRP participants who voluntarily apply protective conservation practices for the lesser prairie-chicken so additional regulations may be unnecessary in the future.
"This gives agricultural producers using proactive conservation practices confidence that they can maintain traditional farming and ranching activities," the National Wheat Growers Assn. said in its newsletter.
Similar programs may also be available for the sage grouse and other species, Vilsack said during the hearing.
Dustin Van Liew, Public Lands Council executive director, said he sees the agreement as positive for the industry because it recognizes the benefits farming and ranching contribute to wildlife. However, the voluntary programs haven't been tested in courts.
"At the end of the day, a judge may end up deciding whether the agreements in place are sufficient to be in compliance" with ESA, Van Liew explained.
Once species are listed as endangered, it could remove incentives to continue practices that improve wildlife habitat. For farmers, the impact of ESA compliance and fines can be so severe that it puts a significant burden on landowners, Van Liew said.
ESA needs to be updated and changed from its current form of a heavy hammer to more of a dangling carrot encouraging good actions. "Our industry is providing a habitat that is needed. They should benefit from the fact that they're providing that habitat, not worry about the fact that they have the habitat," he said.
Once an animal is designated as endangered, the government also must designate conditions for its critical habitats.
The House Natural Resources Committee held an oversight field hearing May 14 in Batesville, Ark., on "Protecting the Rights of Property Owners: Proposed Federal Critical Habitat Designations Gone Wild."
The hearing examined the comprehensive effects of critical habitat designations, flaws in the current critical habitat proposals for the Neosho mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussel and the need for legislation to require the federal government to comprehensively analyze all impacts resulting from an ESA listing and resulting habitat designations.
In 2011, closed-door mega-settlements between two environmental groups and FWS resulted in a deal that requires the Obama Administration to decide by 2016 whether to list 757 species as threatened or endangered and to designate critical habitats for these species.
The hearing highlighted testimony of individuals, business owners and community leaders who will be affected by the relisting of the Neosho muckets and Rabbitsfoot mussels and the need for legislation to ensure that the full economic impacts of designations are counted under ESA.
On May 9, FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service also announced two rules and a policy that will modify the process of designating areas of critical habitat and consulting on the effects of federal actions on critical habitat. These actions include a proposed revision to the definition of "adverse modification."
Van Liew said his group will be requesting a 90-day extension of the comment period for the rule.