Daily Archives: July 10, 2015

Lesser Prairie-chicken numbers increase again



The Lesser Prairie-chicken population increased approximately 25 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the recent range-wide aerial survey. Wildlife biologists with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) attribute the increase to abundant spring rainfall and ongoing efforts associated with the Lesser Prairie-chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan.

Increases were observed in three of the four ecoregions across five states – Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas – where the species exists. The Sandsage Prairie Region of southeast Colorado showed the biggest gain – approximately 75 percent from a year ago. The Mixed Grass Prairie Region of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and southcentral Kansas showed an increase of approximately 30 percent, and the population in the Shortgrass Prairie Region of northwest Kansas grew by about 27 percent.

“An overall 25 percent increase in the Lesser Prairie-chicken population across its five-state range is welcome news,” said Ross Melinchuk, chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-chicken Initiative Council. “This year’s increase, on the heels of last year’s 20 percent increase, is evidence of the species’ ability to rapidly recover from downturns resulting from drought and poor range condition. With continued improvement in nesting and brood-rearing habitat associated with abundant rainfall and private landowner actions to conserve and restore their habitat, we are optimistic the species will recover to historic population levels.”

The only ecoregion with a continued downward population trend is the Shinnery Oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and western Texas. This ecoregion is still recovering from a prolonged period of drought. However, recent roadside surveys indicate Lesser Prairie-chickens in this area are starting to respond to rainfall that occurred in late 2014 and early 2015.

“We’re confident that with continued moisture and drought relief, next year’s Shinnery Oak populations should continue to recover,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator.

The nonprofit WAFWA is coordinating efforts established under the Lesser Prairie-chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, which is an initiative designed to engage private landowners and industry to conserve Lesser Prairie-chicken habitat and minimize impacts to the species. To date, industry partners have committed $46 million in enrollment fees to pay for mitigation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve nearly 100,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.

Companies, landowners, farmers and ranchers may still enroll in the range-wide plan and receive regulatory assurances that their operations can continue under an accompanying Certificate of Participation. Participating companies can continue operations under certain restrictions while providing funds to conserve Prairie-chicken habitat. To date, about 180 oil, gas, wind, electric and pipeline companies have enrolled about 11 million acres across the five states. Enrollment fees are deposited with WAFWA and administered to fund conservation efforts by private landowners to benefit the Lesser Prairie-chicken.

The Lesser Prairie-chicken was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May 2014. The final listing rule allowed private industry to develop and impact habitat if enrolled and participating in WAFWA’s range-wide plan, and it also provided various options that landowners can use to receive similar coverage. The range-wide plan provides incentives for landowners and industry to protect and restore habitat, which is important because they control much of the species’ range.

Organized in 1922, WAFWA represents 23 states and Canadian provinces, from Alaska to Texas and Saskatchewan to Hawaii – an area covering nearly 3.7 million square miles of some of North America’s most wild and scenic country, inhabited by more than 1,500 premier wildlife species.

More information, including the range-wide plan, is available on the WAFWA website at www.wafwa.org.

Vanishing Paradise coalition responds to settlement announcement

Today’s Agreement on Settlement Dollars Puts Gulf on Road to Recovery

On the morning of July 2, 2015, BP, the U.S. Justice Department, and the five Gulf states made public the terms of a settlement agreement regarding the company’s role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP will pay $18.7 billion in penalties and damages for its role in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Steve Bender, director of Vanishing Paradise – a national coalition of more than 800 sportsman and outdoors groups, organizations and businesses working on Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Delta restoration – released the following statement in response:

“Today’s settlement moves the wildlife and habitat of the Gulf Coast forward on the road to recovery. It’s time to look ahead to the future and work toward getting real, on-the-ground restoration projects done.

“Because Congress passed the RESTORE Act in 2012, 80 percent of the money BP pays as a result of the Clean Water Act penalty will be returned to the Gulf Coast for much needed restoration and to improve the region’s long-term resiliency. Repairing the ongoing damage from the oil spill is also of utmost importance going forward, and the settlement dollars BP pays through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment will help the areas devastated by the spill – including habitat that supports world-class hunting and fishing.

“The Gulf Coast region is an ecological and economic driver for the entire nation, and sportsmen and women care about ensuring this national treasure is restored for future generations to enjoy. With as many as 14 million waterfowl migrating to the Gulf’s warm shores annually, and salt and freshwater fishing unlike anywhere else on the planet, we must make sure this entire region – including the endangered Mississippi River Delta – is on the path forward to long-term health and recovery. We look forward to working with federal and state officials and the RESTORE Council to make sure every dime of oil disaster money goes to meaningful, comprehensive restoration.”


Since the Gulf oil disaster more than five years ago, ongoing findings deliver truths omitted by BP’s ads: the oil disaster’s negative effects are increasingly clear, present and far from resolved.

A recent infographic depicts ongoing impacts of the Gulf oil disaster five years later. And over the past year alone, new scientific research has surfaced:

A 2014 study found evidence of a 1,250-square-mile area of oil contamination on the ocean floor around the Macondo wellhead in deep Gulf sediments.

A previous NOAA study found a large number of dead dolphins in heavily oiled places, including Barataria Bay, La.

Recent studies estimate 1,000,000 birds died as a result of being exposed to BP oil.

Modeling for a recent stock assessment projected that between 20,000 and 60,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles died in 2010 as a result of the spill.

A 2014 study found concentrations of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) – which can cause harmful effects in many birds, fish and wildlife – in Barataria and Terrebonne marshes, which may persist for decades.

A 2012 study found that oiled marshes in Barataria Bay eroded at double the rate of non-oiled marshes.

A recent survey found that 70 percent of Americans believe BP should pay maximum fines under the Clean Water Act for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Our Coalition has identified 19 projects from Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast that have the greatest potential to restore our coast.

National Wildlife Federation blasts action on House Interior bill

Sportsmen target funding levels, harmful sage-grouse and public-lands items Amendments proposed to the House Interior Appropriations bill would endanger America’s public lands and outdoor heritage by failing to adequately fund conservation and attempting to undermine efforts to save the greater sage-grouse and the sagebrush country that supports hundreds of species.

Sportsmen’s and conservation groups are particularly concerned about a provision aimed at delaying a decision on whether the greater sage-grouse should be federally protected and other proposals that would stymie conservation efforts for several years, said Aaron Kindle, the National Wildlife Federation’s Western Sportsmen’s Campaign Manager. Now is not the time to derail the work already under way, including the Bureau of Land Management’s recently released sage-grouse conservation plans, he added.

“We have seen an unprecedented collaboration among federal, state and local governments, private landowners and conservationists to save a species and a landscape,” Kindle said. “If we lose the momentum and ignore the bird’s declining numbers and loss of its habitat, we’ll end up having to take more drastic measures that could limit the use of our public lands in the not-too-distant future.”

If the sage-grouse population plummets to the point that federal protections are needed, Kindle said, we will have failed the bird and the lands that support more than 350 other species, a $1 billion annual economy and a way of life important to hunters, ranchers, recreationists, wildlife watchers and communities across the West.

A 2014 poll by the National Wildlife Federation found nine out of 10 hunters in the West believe it’s important to take action to protect sage-grouse habitat in their state and generally link protection of sage-grouse habitat with maintaining healthy populations of other wildlife species.

In general, new polls show broad public support for conservation, balanced public-lands management and the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, making current congressional attacks on our public-lands heritage all the more frustrating, said Kate Zimmerman, NWF’s public lands policy director.

“Before this barrage of amendments to the House bill is over, we could see votes making it much tougher to approve national monuments that have popular support and more political intrusion into what should be science-based decisions about wildlife conservation,” Zimmerman said. “Meanwhile, Congress continues to show how disconnected it is from the people it claims to serve by supporting efforts to sell off public lands while refusing to adequately fund conservation and environmental protections important to Americans.”

On the other hand, Zimmerman noted the opposition to updating the nearly century-old oil and gas royalty rate for drilling operations on public lands. The BLM is considering raising the 12.5 percent rate, far below what several states charge, as well as decades-old bond requirements.

“The resistance to seeking a fair return for the public’s resources is especially mind-boggling coming from elected officials who frequently chastise federal agencies for not being more business-like,” Zimmerman said.


USDA Conservation Program helps reduce flooding concerns along Tennessee’s Red River

Like every farmer, Brendan Finucane needs rain to transform the seeds he plants into a bountiful harvest.  For Finucane, and others who farm along the Red River in Tennessee’s northeast Robertson County, too much rain during the growing season brings the constant threat of flooding and loss of thousands of dollars of farm income.

Finucane had suffered lower yields and even total crop losses on the acreage near the river in three out of the last 10 of years. These circumstances led Finucane to his local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) office for suggestions on how he could better use and protect the land.

In 2012, Finucane, who operates Rockjolly Farm, enrolled six acres of the 100-acre field near the river bottom in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These acres were sown to native grasses providing enhanced habitat for wildlife.

CRP is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015 and is among the largest private lands program for conservation used extensively throughout the United States to reduce soil erosion, improve water and air quality and provide wildlife habitat.

The voluntary program allows eligible landowners to receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource-conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of their 10-to-15-year contracts.

In the past, Finucane’s farm ground in the Red River flood plain was planted in a rotation of wheat, soybean and corn, which, after heavy downpours, would be riddled with rock debris.

“During the 1940’s a natural gas pipeline was laid across the riverbed and has caused the limestone rock debris to continually surface over time,” said Finucane. “Flooding has increased the debris and the only clean up option was to pick up the limestone by hand to allow for planting.”

Finucane said that although the CRP rental payment might be slightly less than what he might have earned from his crop production, he thought there was a greater benefit in returning the land to native grasses. The result was less cleanup work for him at planting time and more wildlife on his farm. He’s even noticed a Great Blue Heron nesting site in trees along the CRP plantings.

Since its inception on December 23, 1985, the CRP program has helped prevent more than eight billion tons of soil from eroding and protected more than 170,000 stream miles with riparian and grass buffers, more than 100,000 acres of bottomland hardwood trees, nearly 300,000 acres of flood-plain wetlands, and 250,000 acres each for duck nesting habitat and upland bird habitat.

For an interactive tour of CRP success stories from across the U.S., please visit the FSA CRP 30th Anniversary website at http://www.fsa.usda.gov/CRPis30.

Record number of farmers and ranchers certified under 2014 Farm Bill Conservation Compliance

Overwhelming Number of Farmers and Ranchers Certify to Follow Conservation Compliance Guidelines, Building on Long-Standing Participation through Other USDA Programs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that over 98.2 percent of producers have met the 2014 Farm Bill requirement to certify conservation compliance to qualify for crop insurance premium support payments.

Implementing the 2014 Farm Bill provisions for conservation compliance is expected to extend conservation provisions for an additional 1.5 million acres of highly erodible lands and 1.1 million acres of wetlands, which will reduce soil erosion, enhance water quality, and create wildlife habitat.

“This overwhelming response is a product of USDA’s extensive outreach and the commitment of America’s farmers to be stewards of the land,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “By investing in both American farmers and the health of our productive lands, we are ensuring future generations have access to fertile soil, healthy food supplies, and a strong rural economy.”

USDA has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that every impacted producer knew of the June 1, 2015 deadline to certify their conservation compliance. For example, all 2015 crop insurance contracts included conservation compliance notifications. USDA has sent out more than 50,000 reminder letters and postcards to individual producers, made over 25,000 phone calls, conducted informational meetings and training sessions for nearly 6,000 stakeholders across the country, including in major specialty crop producing states with affected commodity groups, and more. Since December 2014, USDA collaborated with crop insurers to ensure they had updated lists for agents to continue contacting producers to also remind them of the filing deadline.

Of the small number of producers who have not certified their conservation compliance, USDA records suggest the majority are no longer farming or may have filed forms with discrepancies that can still be reconciled. The Farm Service Agency is proactively reaching back out to all of these producers before their sales closing date and working with individuals facing extenuating circumstances who have not filed the form in order to assist them with certifying compliance.

“I’ve asked the agencies to contact the producers again before their sales closing date,” said Vilsack. “I want to ensure that every producer that turned in an AD-1026 by June 1, 2015, knows they can still make corrections and remain eligible for premium support.”

USDA is providing additional flexibility to help the newly insured producers to certify their conservation compliance. For example, producers, who began farming or ranching after June 1, or producers who have not participated in USDA programs prior to June 1, can file an exemption to the conservation compliance certification for reinsurance year 2016 and still be eligible for the crop insurance premium support.

The Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetland Conservation Certification form (AD-1026) is available at local USDA Service Centers or online at www.fsa.usda.gov/AD1026form.

The announcement was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, which builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past six years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. Since enactment, USDA has implemented many provisions of this critical legislation, providing disaster relief to farmers and ranchers; strengthening risk management tools; expanding access to rural credit; funding critical research; establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships; developing new markets for rural-made products; and investing in infrastructure, housing and community facilities to help improve quality of life in rural America. For more information, visit www.usda.gov/farmbill.