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Chicken Challenge

April 30, 2013
TOPICS: In the news
This article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of OIPA's WellHead.

The greatest threat to Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry is diminutive in size, but great in impact.
Standing no more than 17 inches tall and weighing in at just under two pounds, the lesser prairie chicken has become a formidable foe in ensuring exploration and production of oil and natural gas continues unabated in western Oklahoma.
Spring mating season is usually the only time people can see lesser prairie chickens out and about as males sing and strut across grasslands, displaying brilliant yellow-orange eye combs and puffing out their reddish-purple air sacs to attract females. 
More than half of the about 37,200 short-flight birds counted last year were spotted in Kansas, which still allows hunting of the birds. Texas banned such hunting in 2009 and Colorado already has listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened. They’re also found in portions of New Mexico and western Oklahoma.
Governors of these five states last month issued a statement opposing federal protections for the bird, noting voluntary conservation efforts by their states and commitments from industry leaders and landowners to address the issue.
But advocates for the lesser prairie chicken are concerned such plans would not be enforceable.
“That’s going to be a major test when it comes to the chicken,” said Jay Lininger of the Center for Biological Diversity, who said the species is a bellwether for America’s prairies and does much to regulate insect populations. “Each state is going to do its level best to avoid a federal listing. However, whether those agreements will avert extinction remains to be seen.”
The OIPA has been engaged in a working group comprised of oil and gas operators, agricultural interests and other industry groups from neighboring states within the chicken’s habitat range, to oppose the “threatened” listing decision and to develop plans providing operators with long-term assurances in the event the bird is listed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acting under the Endangered Species Act, will decide by the end of September whether to put the birds on its list of threatened species. Such a move could have serious repercussions for oil and gas drilling, conceivably halting activity in some areas.
Listing the bird as “threatened” may allow for additional measures of regulatory relief, which would be unattainable with an “endangered” listing. But, a threatened listing may still limit where energy development takes place.
The oil and gas industry developing a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for oil and natural gas activities.  A CCAA is a voluntary agreement between the USFWS and an operator to address the conservation needs of the lesser prairie chicken before it becomes listed as endangered or threatened. The goal of the CCAA is to implement conservation measures to eliminate the threats and preclude the need for federal listing. If the species is listed, the CCAA provides an operator with assurances that their conservation efforts will not result in future regulatory obligations in excess of those they agree to at the time they enter into the CCAA.
Speaking at a February field hearing in Woodward, OIPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Brian Woodard told Fish and Wildlife Service officials they have a duty of reviewing “the best scientific data available” and that they should also consider the extensive voluntary conservation efforts currently underway. Additionally, Woodard said the federal agency should delay the final listing decision until the results of scheduled aerial surveys are finalized to properly validate the trend analysis of the chicken’s population. 
“It’s absolutely critical we get a six-month extension,” Woodard said of the September listing deadline. “The foundation of environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are generally black and white and primacy has been delegated to state agencies, whereas the Endangered Species Act has some gray areas that are determined at the discretion of the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
To that end, OIPA is also reviewing and evaluating proposed research projects that industry can support and fund that may delay or possibly preclude the listing of the prairie chicken.
Woodard said the state of Oklahoma and individual companies have worked together to develop conservation plans they hope will prevent the agency from taking such action. A similar strategy worked last year in Texas and New Mexico when the federal government considered protections for the dunes sagebrush lizard. 
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure the chicken is not listed as threatened,” Woodard said. “However, we must continue to develop a plan ensuring oil and gas development can continue if the listing is made.”
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