ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- The federal government signed agreements Monday with an oil and gas company and a rancher to help protect two rare New Mexico species, deals that federal officials hope will pave the way for cooperative conservation efforts across the country.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management reached agreements with Lea County rancher Chris Brininstool and Marbob Energy Corp. of Artesia. The deals are aimed at helping the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard, both candidates for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Brininstool and Marbob agreed to take actions to protect the species and their habitat, including modifying fences to reduce collision by prairie chickens and relocating well sites to limit habitat disturbance.
In return, Brininstool and Marbob have assurances they will be able to continue using the land even if the species should be placed under ESA protection.
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett called the agreements "nationally significant," saying that until now federal wildlife managers had no legal framework to partner on conservation efforts with ranchers who have federal grazing permits or energy development companies that lease public land.
"I cannot tell those gathered here how significant this is, that we find a way through these tools to collaborate across boundaries public and private," Scarlett said during a signing ceremony at the Rio Grande Nature Center.
Scarlett said the goal of the agreements is to take steps with landowners and lessees who are willing to cooperate now rather than having to list the species and force regulatory changes.
But some conservation groups say the government is simply trying to avoid listing the prairie chicken and lizard under the Endangered Species Act.
"We believe it makes absolutely no sense for the Fish and Wildlife Service to be talking about avoiding listing either of these species," said Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians.
The group submitted comments to the agency this year, saying conservation agreements are voluntary and speculative and cannot replace the protections provided under the act. The group also argued that the agreements would not remove or reduce all of the threats facing the species, such as climate change, drought and disease.
Federal officials said they are in the process of getting more landowners and businesses to participate.
Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agreements do not mean the species will not be listed.
On the Net:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest region: http://tinyurl.com/5egfmf
Bureau of Land Management regional office: http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en.html
WildEarth Guardians: http://www.wildearthguardians.org/