By Mike Corn

Five major oil and gas companies have voluntarily enrolled nearly 1.5 million acres in a five-state plan aimed at conserving the lesser prairie chicken.

It's the first enrollment in the plan, which has been in the works for more than a year, following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to propose listing the bird as a threatened species.

State wildlife agencies from Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies put together the plan, hoping to keep the federal agency from moving ahead with the listing.

The five companies are Continental Resources, Devon Energy, Apache Corp., Occidental Oil and Gas Corp. and Samson Resources, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which first announced the move.

The companies plan to develop enrolled land to minimize impacts on lesser prairie-chicken habitat.

They'll also help mitigate development practices that can't be avoided by proving money to pay for conservation on private land.

A number of other companies are in various stages of enrollment, according to Jim Pitman, the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism's small game coordinator and a member of the group responsible for writing the plan.

The five companies enrolling also help pay for helicopter surveys used to count chicken populations in 2012.

"This landmark program allows for industry development within the region and incentivizes farmers and ranchers to conserve and restore habitat for this species," said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland initiative coordinator. "WAFWA and state fish and wildlife agency staff are now working to enroll farming and ranching lands with those mitigation dollars."

Mitigation fees will help fund proven habitat management activities, such as voluntary agreements with landowners to protect or restore native grassland habitat.