The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced the listing of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency says it had considered the bird to be in trouble for the past 15 years. Its population is in rapid decline, due largely to habitat loss and fragmentation and the ongoing drought in the southern Great Plains.
The bird’s historical range of native grasslands and prairies in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent. While no one knows how many prairie-chickens once inhabited the region, a 2013 study by Western EcoSystems Technology Inc. of Laramie, Wyoming, said the population had declined to 17,616 birds, a reduction of more than 50 percent from the 2012 population estimate.
It’s worth noting, however, that in 2002, Paul Johnsgard, foundation professor of biological sciences emeritus at the University of Nebraska, estimated the prairie-chicken’s population to be only 10,000-20,000 birds — a total we reported in a profile of the species in our June 2007 issue.
In September 2013, a conservation plan published by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies set a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide.
The Fish and Wildlife Service was under a court order to make a listing decision by Monday, March 31.
It said its listing rule included the “unprecedented” move of allowing the five states in the bird’s range “to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance,” as outlined in the conservation plan.
“The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation,” according to the agency.
WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, two conservation groups that have lobbied for years to list the prairie-chicken, said the voluntary conservation plans are “virtually unenforceable.”
“The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is endangered, period,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Yet instead of protecting the bird from serious threats, the service exempts anyone who signs on to entirely voluntary state or local conservation plans, undermining the very purpose of protecting imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act.”
“This is an emergency situation that requires the strongest protections possible,” said Jay Lininger, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned its back and relied on voluntary conservation plans that only amount to a wink and a nod with no accountability.”
Dan Ashe, FWS director, defended the decision. “Our determination that it warrants listing as a threatened species with a special rule acknowledges the unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states for management of the species,” he said in a statement.
“To date, we understand that oil and gas companies, ranchers, and other landowners have signed up over three million acres of land for participation in the states’ range-wide conservation plan and the NRCS’ Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative. We expect these plans to work for business, landowners, and the conservation of prairie-chickens.”
The conservation groups counter that the government’s “efforts to appease industry undermine the very purpose of the ESA and allow the status quo to continue – likely necessitating long-term protection of the species under the act.”
“The sky will not fall if full protection of the Endangered Species Act applies to Lesser Prairie-Chickens,” Lininger said. “We owe it to future generations to ensure that this funny, charismatic bird can co-exist with economic development.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor