Southeastern New Mexico Working Group

Posted: Dec 11, 2007
Written by: 
April Reese


Location:
Southeastern New Mexico

Objective: To create a conservation strategy for the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard that will ameliorate the need for federal protection while also allowing economic uses of the land, such as oil and gas development and cattle ranching, to continue.

Participants: Ranchers, oil and gas representatives, Fish & Wildlife Service employees, Forest Service employees, Natural Resources Conservation Service employees, New Mexico Game and Fish employees, New Mexico Land Office employees, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) representatives, environmentalists

History: The landscape of southeastern New Mexico is dominated by the shinnery oak-grassland ecosystem, where squat, well-spaced shrubs mix with bunch grasses and small sand dunes. Amid the oak and grasses, more than 25,000 wells pump oil and gas to the surface. More than 80 years of oil and gas development in the region have helped turn New Mexico into one of the top energy-producing states in the West. Cattle ranching is also a dominant land use in southeastern New Mexico, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a disposal facility for low-level nuclear waste, is also located here.

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 Southeastern New Mexico landscape
Photo by Robert M. Findling, TNC
While oil and gas development is an important economic driver in the state, it has helped push two wildlife species, the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard, toward extinction. Studies have found that the bird will not utilize habitat in the immediate vicinity of oil and gas wells. The two species, which are also pinched by drought, are candidates for inclusion on the Endangered Species List. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has found that a listing is warranted for both species, but precluded because of funding constraints and other, even more imperiled species that are at the front of the line.

The Southeastern New Mexico Working Group came together in February 2003 at the urging of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other agencies. Concerned about the decline of the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard, agency officials put together a group of stakeholders from a wide range of affected or interested constituencies, including the oil and gas industry, ranchers, state land managers, and environmental groups. The group is composed of about 40 people, with four to five representatives from each interest group.

The collaborative effort, facilitated by a mediator, was intended to help reduce the threats to the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard while allowing traditional land uses such as oil and gas development to continue. The group hopes that recovery will be successful enough to avoid the need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act.

For about a year, the group met once a month, and then met sproatically over the second year, members say. Subcommittees were formed to tackle specific tasks and then reported to the group. Towards the end of the effort, much of the work was done through e-mail.

Accomplishments: Although group members admit that they were skeptical of each other and the process at the beginning, they say that, over time, they built a strong trust that enabled them to weather occasional challenges. Members say the group was committed to finding a way to recover the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard while preserving the area's economy and way of life.

During the two-year planning effort, significant habitat monitoring and GIS mapping work was completed over the entire lesser prairie chicken and sand dune lizard habitat in southeastern New Mexico.  The effort provided precise information on the location, extent, and quality of habitat along with species population data.  This information informed the recommendations put forth in the conservation strategy, and continues to inform land managers.  The New Mexico State land Office, for example, has deferred all new oil and gas leasing on lesser prairie chicken occupied habitat, and the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has enacted protective management of suitable and occupied lesser prairie chicken and sand dune lizard habitat.

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 Lesser prairie chicken
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The group completed their plan,  "Collaborative Conservation Strategies for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sand Dune Lizard in New Mexico," on May 5, 2005.  Designed to be applicable over a 5-year period (from 2005-2010), the group plans to use an "adaptive management" approach, retaining the option to add amendments, revisions, and additional strategies as new information becomes available during that period. At the working group's final meeting, an implementation team was established to fulfill the requirements of the second phase-- implementation.  Two members from each of the principal agencies and stakeholder groups involved in the working group were chosen to make up the implementation team.

The Conservation Strategy recommends nine conservation pathways, including: habitat improvement incentives for landowners, funding for habitat enhancement, moratoriums on new mineral leases in priority habitat areas, establishment of reserve areas, captive breeding and re-introduction programs, road closures, outreach efforts, and surveys and habitat monitoring.

Recommendations derived from the conservation strategy document are being used by the BLM in drafting a revised resource management plan for the area. Currently, the agency's interim regulations restrict oil and gas drilling in certain areas to protect the species, but the group has found that in some cases, restrictions have been imposed for areas that are not good habitat for the species. In other cases, it has determined that some areas should probably remain off-limits to development.

In November of 2007, the BLM released the "Special Status Species Proposed Resource Management Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement".  The BLM's preferred alternative is the adoption of the Southeastern New Mexico Working Group's conservation strategy.  The Record of Decision and the Approved Resource Management Plan will be made available to the public mid-2008.

Challenges/constraints: While new scientific studies have been completed during the group's tenure, many scientific questions remain unanswered. For instance, the role of drought in the decline of the species is poorly understood. Some group members - particularly those in the oil and gas industry - said they would like to see more science completed before the group made its recommendations. But they acknowledge that those studies could take years, and that a plan needs to be put in place as soon as possible. Environmental interests say the populations of both the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard are in such bad shape that action needs to be taken now, even if it's imperfect.

A lack of consistency in participation was difficult at times, members say. There were times when stakeholders from one constituency have agreed to something, only to have their decision challenged by absentee participants when they showed up at the next meeting.

And some stakeholders were concerned that the absence of private-land and state-land ranchers, who opted not to take participate after the group’s first meeting, will weaken the potential for broad buy-in to the group’s plan. Furthermore, at least one environmental stakeholder said he believes that because the group’s work focused on sustaining the existing lesser prairie chicken population and ignoring reintroduction in other parts of its range, the group’s efforts may not be enough to head off an ESA listing.

Implementation poses its own suite of challenges, from maintaining the momentum generated during the planning phase, to ensuring sufficient political will and resources to carry out the plan's recommendations.


For more information see:

Collaborative Conservation Strategies for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sand Dune Lizard in New Mexico

New Mexico BLM Resource Management Plan and EIS

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Plan
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