Bennet Pushes To Protect Fragile Land, Preserve Habitat for Lesser Prairie Chicken in Southeastern Colorado

Pens Letter Urging USDA To Create a Conservation Reserve Program Initiative to Increase Conservation Options for Southeastern Colorado Landowners

In an effort to increase conservation options for Colorado landowners, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colorado, today announced his push to protect fragile land and preserve a habitat for the lesser prairie chicken.

In a letter, Bennet urged U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) initiative to give qualified landowners another way to maintain conservation practices at a time when millions of acres of CRP contracts are expiring with unclear prospects of reenrollment.

"This initiative would be a win-win for southeastern Coloradans. It would protect fragile land, preserve critical wildlife habitat, and reduce chances that the lesser prairie chicken gets placed on the endangered species list," said Bennet.  

The CRP program enables farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner. In southeastern Colorado the program enables participants to return their land to native grassland--critical habitat for the lesser prairie chicken and other grassland species.

Bennet, along with Senate colleagues Mark Udall, Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to create a High Plains CRP initiative in the lesser prairie chicken's natural range. The letter cites the important economic benefits the initiative and other modifications to existing CRP policies could provide farmers and ranchers during this period of economic turmoil.

The letter also highlights the potential benefits to the lesser prairie chicken, an emblematic High Plains species  in danger of being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Listing of the lesser prairie chicken under the ESA could have significant adverse repercussions on the High Plains economy, potentially limiting both conventional and renewable energy development, as well as farming and ranching in the bird's 5 state range (CO, KS, OK, TX and NM).  The Colorado counties affected by the proposal are Baca, Bent, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Prowers.

The letter to Secretary Vilsack is included below:

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Mr. Vilsack:

We are writing to express our support for establishment of a High Plains Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to allow farmers and ranchers to restore eligible lands to native grassland habitat for lesser prairie chickens (LEPC) and other grassland-dependent species.

This is a critical time for the High Plains economy. Farmers and ranchers are grappling with fluctuating commodity prices, increased input costs, and uncertainty due to the recession, drought and prospect of diminished CRP enrollment opportunities during the enormous wave of expiring CRP contracts.  The High Plains is playing a central role in building the nation's new energy economy. Energy companies are investing in the region in new renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar and also in increased oil and gas development.

The lesser prairie chicken, a species that is emblematic of High Plains prairie and wildlife, is teetering on the brink of being listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. This listing could have significant adverse impacts on the regional economy, including farming, ranching and energy development, oil and gas as well as wind energy.

As you know, CRP is a highly popular program in the High Plains with a proven track record of success in providing habitat used by lesser prairie chickens. Targeted CRP enrollments could play an instrumental role in bringing this species back from the brink and averting the need to list it under the Endangered Species Act. 

Establishing a High Plains LEPC CRP initiative along with making modifications to existing CRP policies and initiative allotments, including reducing extension and reenrollment restrictions on expiring CRP contracts, could also provide important economic benefits to farmers and ranchers during this period of great economic turmoil. It could help alleviate some of the significant anxiety and concern many in our region are experiencing in the face of the expiration of millions of acres of CRP contracts and unclear prospects for reenrollment.  A High Plains LEPC CRP could also provide other critical environmental benefits, such as protecting drought-prone, sandy soils from wind-blown erosion, and helping to recharge the Ogallala aquifer, particularly on enrollments in which playa lakes are restored.

Thank you for considering our comments on this matter of particular concern for our region.  We look forward to your response.