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Candidate conservation, New Mexico style: combining partnership tools aids imperiled animals.

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The sand dunes and arid plains of southeastern New Mexico contain riches both economic and natural. Cattle grazing and oil and gas development dominate much of the landscape, but the dunes and shrubby grasslands conceal a variety of wildlife. In the face of disappearing habitat, ranchers and energy companies are joining federal and state wildlife agencies in voluntary efforts to show that conservation can be compatible with careful land use.

In late 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) launched an innovative program that encourages landowners, energy companies, and ranchers in this region to assist in conserving two vulnerable animals--the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) and the sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus).

These species have suffered significant declines and are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Through conservation agreements, the Service hopes to restore both species to a secure status, possibly making ESA protection unnecessary. For the first time, but almost certainly not the last, we are combining two of the Service's most important incentive-based conservation tools to benefit these candidate species.

Both federal agencies and the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management (CEHMM), a non-profit organization in New Mexico, will administer the voluntary agreements. A Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) addresses activities of oil and gas lease holders and grazing permitees on federal lands, and a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) provides incentives for enhancing wildlife habitat on state and private lands.

Under these agreements, federal, state, non-profit, industry, and private landowner partners can work together to reduce or eliminate threats to the lesser prairie-chicken and sand dune lizard. In return, non-federal landowners receive assurances that their operations on their own land can continue regardless of whether or not the species later come under ESA protection, and ranchers and petroleum companies operating on federal land have a greater degree of certainty that their operations will not need to change.

Lesser prairie chickens require habitats with sandy soils that support shinnery oak (Quercus harvardii)bluestem (Andropogon sp.) and sand sage (Artemisia filifolia)bluestem communities in the plains of southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, western Texas, the Texas panhandle, and eastern New Mexico. These birds are observed most easily in spring when males gather on traditional arenas (commonly called leks) and perform elaborate dances, displays, and booming calls to attract females.

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As their name indicates, sand dune lizards prefer dune habitats, particularly those associated with shinnery oak and scattered sand sage. The oaks provide dune structure, shelter, and habitat for the species' insect prey. The lizards are found within large dunes that contain deep, wind-hollowed depressions called blowouts. There they can find the vegetation and loose sand that enables them to avoid predators and regulate body temperature.

The habitat required by both species was reduced and fragmented by conversion to cropland, intensive grazing (particularly in dry years), oil and gas development, the application of herbicides for shinnery oak removal, and (for the low-flying prairie-chicken) collisions with wire fences. The new conservation agreements address these problems directly.

Candidate Conservation Agreement

The Marbob Energy Corporation of Artesia, New Mexico, was the first company to enroll under the BLM's CCA, with CEHMM and the Service as partners. According to Rand French of Marbob, enrolling was an easy decision after finding that two candidate species occupy the land. "We felt we needed something in the toolbox in case these species did become listed."

Under the agreement, Marbob agreed to minimize surface disturbance within a site on public land in Lea County that the company has leased for oil and gas drilling. The company will also reduce drilling site impacts, relocate future wells as needed, and concentrate drill site infrastructure in locations that avoid lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Further, all oil and gas permittees contribute to funds that are used to reclaim legacy wells (abandoned wells that lack a current responsible party), as well as other management activities throughout the area covered by the CCA/CCAA.

According to French, his company believes that it's common sense to try and get ahead of the regulatory curve. "Those that are really looking out for the best interest of their company will sign up. A lot of people don't realize that they don't want to deal with a listed species."

Several other energy companies are also working with BLM to join the effort by enrolling under the CCA. "I think that with more companies signing on, there'll be more participation by other companies that have been reluctant," says French. "If not, once those species get listed they're going to have a hard time getting permits. Soon I think they'll all come to the conclusion that this is something they should be participating in."

The agreement builds on the BLM's Special Status Species Resource Management Plan Amendment, a 2008 commitment to protect both species and restore their habitat. The plan established requirements that apply to all federally authorized activities, regardless of whether or not a grazing permittee or oil and gas leasee participates in the CCA program. The strength of the CCA comes from additional conservation measures that are above and beyond the requirements in BLM's Resource Management Plan.

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Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances

Conserving habitat on private lands is also important and can ensure that similar management is applied across the mixed-ownership landscape. Chris Brininstool, a rancher in Lea County, has been an enthusiastic supporter of lesser prairie-chicken conservation for at least 11 years. She has enrolled all of her privately-owned acreage (3,200 acres, or about 1,300 hectares) under the CCAA.

Brininstool has undertaken a variety of specific conservation actions: placed markers on fences to make them more visible to lesser prairie-chickens and prevent mortality during pre-dawn flights; provided water sources for wildlife; construct escape ramps in livestock watering tanks so that wildlife can exit safely; and maintained habitat for prairie-chicken reintroductions in the future. The first release is scheduled for March 2011.

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"It's all of these little things that add up to really benefit the wildlife," says Brinninstool. She is quick to note that habitat improvement projects benefit more than just wildlife. "I've also been doing a lot of mesquite control--killing the mesquite--which means there's more grass, which is good for the cattle and it's also good habitat for the wildlife."

Brininstool's interest in conservation extends to public outreach and education. She continues to invite local volunteers from schools and groups such as the Future Farmers of America and the Boy Scouts to assist her in marking fences, while at the same time educating them on prairie-chicken conservation. She also plans to host meetings with other ranchers to tell them about her experience with candidate conservation programs and promote their participation.

According to Brininstool, she's not the only one advocating for these birds. "All of my neighbors surrounding me have signed up, and they're all very excited about it. No one down here wants to see this species listed as endangered."

Another 12 ranches near Milnesand, New Mexico, are also enrolled and actively conserving both species on their lands. Several of the participants are working on a private lands agreement under the Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to implement conservation management practices identified in the CCAA.

"If we can help these birds, it'll benefit everybody," Brininstool says, "not just ranchers but state and federal agencies and the oil and gas industry."

The Service and BLM can add or make necessary modifications to existing conservation measures found in CCAs and CCAAs that will apply to future enrollments. In addition, new conservation measures can be implemented, in cooperation with enrollees, if the Service or BLM finds them necessary for the continued conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken and/or the sand dune lizard.

These agreements will support ongoing efforts, especially those of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, to establish or reestablish populations of both species in suitable but currently unoccupied habitats.

Copies of the CCA and the CCAA can be found at fws.gov/southwest/es/ NewMexico/.

What is a Candidate Conservation Agreement?

"Candidate Conservation Agreements" or CCAs are voluntary agreements to address the conservation needs of candidate and at-risk species. Both federal and non-federal landowners can be CCA partners. Unlike CCAAs (see opposite page), CCAs do not include regulatory assurances to the partners.

What is the landowner role?

The landowner or multiple landowners agree to implement described actions for a specified period to remove or reduce the threats to the target species. Landowners work with the Service, and with each other when more than one is involved, to design conservation measures.

What are the benefits?

For the landowner. CCAs provide guidance and a formal management plan that identifies specific conservation actions for covered species and their habitats.

For the species: CCAs help to remove threats to a species and improve its status so that listing may become unnecessary.

Who can participate?

Any landowner, federal or non-federal, can participate.

Current participants include ranchers, farmers, corporations, cities, counties, water and park districts, non-governmental organizations, zoos, aquariums, universities, state wildlife agencies, state transportations agencies, state forestry agencies, tribes, the Army Corps of Engineers, Depart of Defense, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service.

What is a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances?

"Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances" or CCAAs are voluntary agreements that provide incentives for landowners to conserve "candidate" and "at-risk" species. (See "Frequently Used Terms" on page 44 of the Bulletin for definitions.)

What is the landowner's role?

For the length of the agreement, the landowner agrees to undertake specific conservation measures that address the identified threats to the target species.

What are the benefits?

For the landowner: Regulatory assurances that if the species is later listed, the landowner will not be required to do anything beyond what is specified in the agreement.

For the species: Reduces threats to the species so that listing may become unnecessary.

Who can participate?

Any non-federal property owner can participate in the CCAA program. The CCAA can cover an entire property or just a portion of it.

Instead of developing an individual CCAA, property owners can choose to enroll in an existing programmatic CCAA that is designed for a region or an entire state and is administered by a non-federal entity.

Participants in the CCAA program range from individual landowners who own less than an acre to large corporations with thousands of acres. States can also enter into CCAAs.

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How Do I Set Up a CCA?

1. Land managers, most commonly federal and state agencies, interested in working with the Service on a CCAA for a candidate or at-risk species can contact the appropriate regional office (see inside back cover).

2. When a conservation agreement is found to be feasible, landowners and the Service work together to compile information about the property or properties, including a map, the current management practices, and the management needs of the species and/or habitat. Any threats to the species on the property are also clearly identified.

3. Landowners and the Service identify the voluntary management actions needed to address known threats to the target species. They also determine the duration of the agreement, in order to allow enough time to achieve the desired conservation benefit.

4. Landowners and the Service develop a draft CCA that addresses known threats to the species through specific conservation actions. The CCA also describes the current and anticipated management of the property (farming, ranching, timber management, etc.). Additionally, it describes how to monitor the prescribed management actions.

5. Landowners submit the completed CCA to the Service and all parties sign the agreement.

6. Landowners begin any new conservation actions and/or continue with existing practices, as identified in the CCA, and report annually on the agreement's progress.

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How Do I Set Up a CCAA?

1. Non-federal landowners and managers interested in working with the Service on a CCAA for a candidate or at-risk species can contact the appropriate regional office (see inside back cover).

2. If a conservation agreement is found to be feasible, the landowner and the Service work together to compile information about the land, including a map, the current management practices, and the management needs of the species and/or habitat. Any threats to the species on the property are also clearly identified.

3. The landowner and the Service identify voluntary management actions to address known threats to the target species. They also determine the duration of the agreement, in order to allow enough time to achieve the desired conservation benefit.

4. For the Service to enter into a CCAA, the conservation measures and resulting benefits must meet a standard: When combined with the benefits that would be achieved if the measures were also implemented on other necessary properties, it would preclude any need to list the covered species.

5. The Service identifies any anticipated "incidental take" that might result from CCAA management actions if the species is listed at some point in the future.

6. The landowner and Service develop a draft CCAA that addresses known threats to the species through specific conservation actions. The CCAA also describes the current and anticipated management of the property (farming, ranching, timber management, etc.). Additionally, it determines how to monitor the prescribed management actions and interpret their results.

7. The landowner submits the completed CCAA to the Service and an application for an "enhancement of survival permit," which will take effect if the species is later listed.

8. The Service then publishes an announcement in the Federal Register that it has received an application for an "enhancement of survival permit." A 30-day public comment period follows.

9. During the public comment period, the Service conducts a series of internal reviews relating to issuing the requested permit.

10. After considering any public comments and incorporating any appropriate changes, the Service and the landowner approve the final CCAA. Assuming all issuance criteria have been met, the Service then issues the enhancement of survival permit.

11. The landowner begins any new conservation actions and/or continues with existing practices, as identified in the CCAA, and reports annually on the agreement's progress.

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Mike Bender (mike_bender@fws. gov; 703-358-2335) is the Bulletin editor. Sarah Leon, a, communications specialist with the Service's Endangered Species Program headquarters office in Arlington, Virginia, can be reached at sarah_ leon@fws.gov or 703-358-2229.
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Title Annotation:Candidate Conservation Agreements/Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances
Author:Bender, Mike; Leon, Sarah
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Sep 22, 2010
Words:2401
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