In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a “threatened” listing for the lesser prairie chicken, an upland bird native to western and northwest Oklahoma.

If the proposal advances to a final listing, then additional federal regulations and oversight can apply to landowners in the bird’s native range that may affect what happens on their property or how it may be used.

A federal ruling is expected by the end of September 2013, and landowners in certain western and northwest Oklahoma counties may be eligible for free participation in an agreement that will protect what they can do on their land if the bird is listed.

The newly created agreement is called the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances Program (CCAA). Landowners with approved management plans in place with the CCAA before a final listing decision is made will have the guarantee of assurances against certain liabilities and federal restrictions in the event that the lesser prairie chicken is listed as a threatened or endangered species. The CCAA permit is issued to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Wildlife Department will include participating landowners under the permit.

“This is a significant step toward securing not only long-lasting conservation efforts for the species, but it also provides an avenue for certainty for landowers should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirm its proposed listing of ‘threatened,'” said Gary Sherrer, Oklahoma secretary of the environment.

Enrolled landowners and Wildlife Department biologists will collaborate on a wildlife management plan specific to the property enrolled, which may include efforts such as red cedar removal, fence marking and grazing management, among others. In return, landowners who enroll and participate receive the assurances offered by the permit.

The CCAA is designed to conserve lesser prairie chickens and their habitat while minimizing impacts that a federal listing would have on landowners in the eligible region.

“The CCAA is like insurance for landowners in case the lesser prairie chicken is listed,” said Wade Free, assistant director of the Wildlife Department. “It provides assurances that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not be able to add additional requirements to landowners.”

The CCAA is a voluntary program, and participation is not dependent on the presence or absence of lesser prairie chickens on the enrolled property. Through the program, landowners agree to perform certain habitat work to benefit lesser prairie chickens in exchange for the assurances provided under the Certificate of Inclusion.

“The Agricultural Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) reached between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is a solid step toward appropriately managing the lesser prairie chicken on a state and local level in Oklahoma,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). “This key agreement allows landowners in 14 western Oklahoma counties the opportunity to voluntarily work with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to take steps to conserve the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat on their property in exchange for assurances against land use restrictions. As Oklahoma’s state agencies, job creators, and land owners continue to work to address the lesser prairie chicken, I will continue to work with them to protect our jobs and hold sacred our private property rights. It is my hope that these and other actions taken by private landowners and the state will be sufficient to prevent a listing of the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act.”

Landowners in the following counties are eligible: Alfalfa, Beaver, Beckham, Cimarron, Custer, Dewey, Ellis, Harper, Major, Roger Mills, Texas, Washita, Woods and Woodward.

The Wildlife Department does not issue incentive payments to landowners for participation in the program. Participation is free for landowners, and landowners may opt out at any time.

Officials with the Wildlife Department say conservation measures accomplished through the program could even help convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that a final listing is not warranted.

For more information or to enroll, contact one of the following Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation personnel: Doug Schoeling, (405) 301-9945; Alva Gregory, (580) 334-4459; or Matt Fullerton, (580) 571-5820.

For more information, or to see a copy of the Agricultural CCAA or a sample management plan, log on to wildlifedepartment.com.

Logo courtesy Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

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