N.M. holds off on lesser prairie chicken hunt

SANTA FE — The heads of the state Game and Fish Department and the Game Commission have decided to hold off on issuing hunting permits for the lesser prairie chicken, a longtime candidate for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Game and Fish director Bruce Thompson and Game Commission chairman Tom Arvas said they will not issue permits while a decision to list the bird as a protected species is pending before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Given the strong public interest in protecting this species, it’s prudent for us to take more time to work with our partners to assure that we continue to take the best approach for conserving this species and its habitat,” Arvas said in a statement Thursday.

Southern Roosevelt County is the beseiged bird’s stronghold in New Mexico.

Lesser prairie chickens are round, stocky ground-dwelling birds. Males are famous for courtship displays in which they inflate pouches of skin on the side of their necks. The displays have become the centerpiece of an annual festival near the eastern New Mexico town of Milnesand.

Tish McDaniel of Clovis, who helps organize the festival said she believes from a biology standpoint the hunt was sound, but she’s glad to see it delayed.

“I personally think it’s a good idea to put it all on hold,” McDaniel said. “The perception that all is well with the birds is not correct. It’s something that needs to be studied more closely before something is put in place.”

The Game Commission on July 21 approved a structure for lesser prairie chicken hunting in New Mexico that could have started as early as this fall.

The plan included a strict permitting process, but conservationists, sportsmen’s groups and others argued that such an activity could derail long-term efforts to conserve the bird’s population.

Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, noted the lesser prairie chicken has been a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act for more than a decade and has been reduced to just a fraction of its once booming population in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

Rosmarino said the bird can’t afford “any backslides in protection.”

“This incident shows just how important it is to take management of this species out of state hands by listing it under the federal Endangered Species Act,” Rosmarino said Friday.

Rosmarino has said the bird’s future is bleak unless Fish and Wildlife decides to list it.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not have funding this fiscal year for the studies necessary for proposing a listing, but staff biologists, landowners and other agencies are closely monitoring the bird.

Various projects are under way, including putting markers on fence lines to prevent the chickens from colliding with barbed wire fences. Fish and Wildlife also works with the Bureau of Land Management and Game and Fish to promote cooperative agreements with landowners to ensure prairie chicken habitat is conserved.

The Game Commission said it has numerous properties that are specifically managed for lesser prairie chickens and that it’s in the process of establishing more areas.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said New Mexico officials made the right decision by holding off on the hunt.

“It makes sense to delay this hunt so that the Bureau of Land Management, the state Department of Game and Fish and other public, private and nonprofit stakeholders can continue promoting the bird’s population while ensuring multiple use of public lands in southeast New Mexico,” the senator said in a statement Friday.

On the Net:

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov

WildEarth Guardians: http://www.wildearthguardians.com