Eighty-four Texas ranchers in the Panhandle and Rolling Plains have voluntarily enrolled 614,250 acres in conservation agreements for the lesser prairie-chicken, marking the largest private landowner commitment to conserve a rare species in Texas history, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
This comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mulls whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act, a decision expected by March 31.
Back in November 2006, TPWD signed a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the federal wildlife agency. At the time, the bird was a candidate for listing. Yet for several years after the agreement was developed, few landowners signed on. Then, after the USFWS proposed listing the bird as threatened in late 2012, enrollment surged.
By undertaking voluntary conservation measures on their property under the agreement, landowners are assured that no further land use restrictions or conditions will be required from them if the lesser prairie-chicken is ultimately listed. In return, landowners undertake conservation actions such as brush control, grazing management, prescribed burning, and allowing periodic monitoring on their property.
“Prairie-chicken conservation equals grassland conservation,” said Calvin Richardson, TPWD Wildlife Division district leader, based in Canyon. “Landowners who provide good habitat for this bird are helping many other grassland-dependent species, such as pronghorn antelope and many grassland birds. Further, prairie conservation equals water conservation. Restoring and managing the native grasslands of the Texas Panhandle, including regions with Playa Lakes, can help provide vital recharge sources for the Ogallala Aquifer.”
Department biologists also said the improvement in rangeland health that results from CCAA management also benefits cattle operations with conservative stocking rates that ensure good plant health, productivity, and a cushion in an unpredictable weather environment.