New Forest Service Plan Threatens Fragile Grasslands’ Nature and Wildlife

Nov 19, 2008

DENVER - On November 17, WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Wild, and the Wildness Society filed an objection to a proposed Forest Service plan to manage the Comanche and Cimarron National Grasslands. The plan threatens vital habitat for rare and declining wildlife and plants, the largest span of preserved dinosaur tracks in the country, and the longest stretch of the historic Santa Fe Trail on public land.

“The Forest Service plan does almost nothing to protect the unique natural and cultural treasures of these Grasslands,” stated Dr. Lauren McCain, Desert and Grassland Projects Director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Grasslands are wildlife hotspots—fragile islands within a large sea of private lands devoted to commercial interests, especially agriculture.”

“The new plan sets few limits on oil and gas extraction and associated facility construction or on recreational off-road vehicle use and livestock grazing—the very uses that are destroying and damaging the values cherished by the public,” added Rocky Smith, Forest and Grasslands Program Director with Colorado Wild.

The Comanche National Grassland is located in southeast Colorado and the Cimarron in southwest Kansas. These federal lands provide habitat for a range of rare native animals and plants, including the lesser prairie-chicken and the Arkansas darter—a bird and a fish listed as candidates for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing. Other Grasslands species include: mountain plovers, burrowing owls, other declining birds, swift foxes, and the Arkansas River shiner—the latter a Threatened species under the ESA. The Grasslands are two of the few places in the southern plains that may be able to support small populations of the critically endangered black-footed ferret, an animal that depends on prairie dogs for food and their burrows for breeding and shelter. The Grasslands, particularly the Comanche, host some of the largest colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs in the southern plains; their populations have dwindled to a mere 1-2% of their historic levels.

In the lesser prairie-chicken’s case, the Grasslands are some of the bird’s last remaining strongholds. This species lives only in the southern plains of the U.S. Populations are plummeting on the Comanche Grassland. A recent report by the Colorado Division of Wildlife noted that 348 males were observed in 1988. In 2007, that number was down to 21. Though less severe than the Comanche, the Cimarron’s prairie-chicken populations have also experienced a general trend toward decline. According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks the Kansas population dropped 38% between 2006-2007. The biggest human threats to the birds and their scarce habitat on the Grasslands include: oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use, livestock grazing, and hunting in the Cimarron.

“It’s inconceivable that the Forest Service plan will continue promoting activities that are pushing the lesser prairie-chicken to the brink of extinction,” argued McCain of WildEarth Guardians. “The management plan has not even been finalized and the Forest Service has offered up a Colorado state designated Natural Area and its own Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Zoological Area—both areas intended to protect the species’ habitat—to oil and gas drilling.”

The new Comanche and Cimarron National Grasslands management plan is the first to test new Forest Service planning regulations put in place by the Bush Administration.

“The Comanche and Cimarron Grasslands are the test ‘guinea pigs’ in a bad new experiment for public land management planning,” stated Mary Krueger, a policy analyst at The Wilderness Society. “The current regulations removed key wildlife protections, meaningful standards for implementing projects, mechanisms for monitoring progress and public accountability, and avenues for public involvement. Weak regulations lead to weak plans, as is unfortunately the case with the Plan for the Grasslands,” Krueger noted.

The Federal Government acquired the National Grasslands of the Dust Bowl destroyed croplands during the 1930s. By law (the Bankhead Jones Farm Tenant Act) the original intention of the Grasslands was to protect their natural resources from the ravages of commercial uses. They explicitly prohibited oil and gas operations until a 1960s amendment to the law.

Objectors have requested that the Forest Service prepare a whole new draft plan, one with strong protections for important resources and areas, and release it for public comment. “The agency still has a chance to get it right – to formulate a plan for protecting inestimably valuable resources,” noted Smith.