Resource ChallengeThe 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.
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, which is facilitated by a mediator, is 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.
The group is taking a two-step approach to meeting its goals. A final draft of the conservation strategy document has been completed, and will be reviewed and finalized at the last meeting of the working group in early May 2005. Following finalization of the document, there will be a "ground-truthing" phase, where members will spend some time in the field to determine whether potential management scenarios will work on the ground.
Examples of Key PartnersRanchers, 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, The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups.
Results and Accomplishments
Although group members admit that they were skeptical of each other and the process at the beginning, they say that, over time, they have built a strong trust that has enabled them to weather occasional challenges. Members say the group is 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.
The working group has begun to come up with several ideas for how to accomplish that goal. One option under consideration is to reclaim old drilling sites and turn them into adequate habitat for the two species to offset impacts from new energy development. Placing some areas off-limits to development or restricting use to times when the lesser prairie chicken is not breeding has also been discussed.
The group has also mulled creating a captive breeding facility for the lesser prairie chicken, perhaps on WIPP's vast grounds, which encompass about 10,000 acres. Ranchers could also aid recovery by nurturing prairie chicken populations on private lands, group members say. Keeping grass at least two feet tall during breeding season, when chicks are vulnerable to predation, could help protect the species, although the current drought, which experts say could persist for a decade or more, could make implementing such a measure difficult.
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. Accordingly, the group intends to take an "adaptive management" approach in creating its recovery plan and recommendations, which allows changes to be made as more information is gathered about the species.