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Nature Conservancy purchase to protect prairie chicken in N.M.

By The Associated Press - 07/29/04

MILNESAND, N.M. (AP) - The Nature Conservancy is giving the lesser prairie chicken a home on the range.

The private, nonprofit conservation organization is buying an 18,500-acre ranch near here from Roy and Shirley Creamer. The ranchers will lease it back and continue to run cattle on the land about 30 miles south of Portales.

The lesser prairie chicken, a type of grouse, has disappeared from half of its historic range in New Mexico and from more than 90 percent of its total five-state range. It needs tall grasses and relies on shinnery oak and other shrubs.

The Creamer Ranch has a high density of prairie chicken breeding grounds, and some say it's the center of the prairie chicken's core population in New Mexico. The purchase will almost double the number of acres protected for the rare bird.

''It's an extremely important acquisition,'' said Bob Findling, The Nature Conservancy's director of conservation projects in New Mexico.

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Neither side would disclose the purchase price.

The ranch will continue as a working ranch, but the management focus ''will shift a little bit to be improving lesser prairie chicken habitat,'' he said.

Biologists say overgrazing, conversion of rangeland into farms and dairies, oil and gas development and drought have hurt the bird.

The purchase will help demonstrate ''how you can combine good grazing practices with conservation for prairie chickens,'' said Dawn Davis, prairie chicken biologist.

for the state Game and Fish Department. ''You can have your livelihood and prairie chickens.''

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in 1995 the bird warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act but would have to wait behind other higher priority species. Four years later, after intense lobbying from ranching groups, the state Game and Fish Department withdrew a recommendation to make the bird a state threatened species.


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