Oil companies donate land for prairie chicken plan

FILE - This  March 2007 file photo provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shows a male lesser prairie chicken in a mating stature in the Texas panhandle. A first-of-its-kind agreement between federal agencies is designed to ease the concerns of landowners and the energy industry in five states ahead of an expected listing of the lesser prairie chicken as threatened, a move that could curtail their ability to operate in those habitats.  (AP Photo/Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Jon McRoberts, File)
FILE - This March 2007 file photo provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shows a male lesser prairie chicken in a mating stature in the Texas panhandle. A first-of-its-kind agreement between federal agencies is designed to ease the concerns of landowners and the energy industry in five states ahead of an expected listing of the lesser prairie chicken as threatened, a move that could curtail their ability to operate in those habitats. (AP Photo/Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Jon McRoberts, File)

HOUSTON (AP) — Five oil and gas companies have pledged to give 1.5 million acres of land in five states for conservation of lesser prairie chicken habitat as part of an effort to prevent the bird from being federally protected as a threatened species.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement Friday this represents the first enrollment in the so-called “range-wide plan” developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and state wildlife agencies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

The lesser prairie chicken lives in the plains of these five states. Its numbers have dwindled in recent years from fewer than 45,000 in December 2012 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed enlisting the bird under the Endangered Species Act to fewer than 18,000 in the most recent survey. Drought and loss of habitat are blamed for the decline. The federal agency is to rule on the bird’s status on March 30.

Oil and gas drilling have boomed and ranching is prolific in the bird’s habitat. Those industries fear a listing could make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to operate.

Continental Resources, Devon Energy, Apache Corp., Occidental Oil and Gas Corporation and Samson Resources are the first companies to enroll acreage in the plan.

“We believe this plan offers the best, most comprehensive approach available to conserve the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat, while providing some assurance for participating companies so we can continue to do business,” said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, which represents the oil and gas industry in West Texas and parts of New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are also extending landowners a conservation deal. Under that agreement, landowners who preserve habitat would not be liable for dead birds found in the conservation areas, even in the event the chicken receives federal protection.

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