Enviros seek emergency lesser prairie chicken protections

Scott Streater, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, September 8, 2016


A coalition of environmental groups today asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse course and list the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species in need of immediate federal protection to survive.

The 161-page petition filed by WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity asks for Endangered Species Act protections for the total lesser prairie chicken population, which was removed in July from the ESA list following a federal court order.

But for two distinct population segments — the shinnery oak prairie segment along the Texas-New Mexico border and the sand sagebrush prairie segment in Colorado and western Kansas — the groups want the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue an “emergency” endangered listing “at the soonest possible time.”

WildEarth Guardians also requests that the service concurrently designate critical habitat for all three population segments that constitute the lesser prairie chicken species.

Fish and Wildlife has the authority to issue an emergency listing for the prairie chicken, said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. The emergency request should be granted, he said, because recent scientific studies show an increasing likelihood of the bird’s extinction across several states.

“The science is clear: The lesser prairie chicken is in serious trouble, and voluntary conservation efforts are not doing enough fast enough to recover these amazing birds,” Molvar said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has a duty to prevent the extinction of the lesser prairie chicken for the benefit of us all, and to do that it must restore federal protections as quickly as possible.”

Lesli Gray, an FWS spokeswoman, said the service just received the petition and the agency is reviewing it.

But FWS has made the consideration of new or additional protections for the lesser prairie chicken one of its top listing priorities over the next seven years (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

And FWS Director Dan Ashe suggested in July, when the prairie chicken was formally delisted, that the service could restore protections. He said at the time that removing ESA protections “does not mean we are walking away from efforts to conserve the lesser prairie chicken. Far from it” (Greenwire, July 19).

Gray said today the service is conducting an in-depth assessment of the bird to determine whether it should be placed back on the threatened or endangered species list.

Gray said there are no deadlines for completing the assessment, which will depend on the kinds of information FWS, the U.S. Geological Survey and other partners in the effort receive during the assessment.

In the meantime, she said, there are numerous voluntary efforts underway that strive to protect the prairie chicken, which is renowned for its elaborate spring mating dance.

“We’re continuing to work with the states and other partners on protections for the chicken,” Gray said. “We are continuing to move forward on those protections with the states and our industry partners.”

The brown-and-white-striped prairie chicken was a candidate species for more than a decade before it was declared threatened in 2014.

That listing, however, was successfully challenged by a Texas oil trade group and three fossil-fuel-rich New Mexico counties. They argued that FWS failed to consider the extent to which a rangewide conservation plan crafted and administered by state wildlife agencies and supported by energy companies and landowners would ameliorate the chicken’s top threats — including energy development, livestock grazing, tree encroachment and conversion of rangeland to crops.

Ultimately, Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas last year overturned federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken and refused the Obama administration’s request to reinstate them while FWS worked on a new listing that would have taken better account of state conservation efforts. The administration then dropped its plan to appeal the ruling earlier this year (Greenwire, May 12).

Since that time, an annual survey of prairie chickens across their range in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas revealed that the population of the birds in the wild has dropped over 13 percent (Greenwire, July 1).

That’s unacceptable, the environmental groups say.

“It took Fish and Wildlife Service 10 years to finally protect lesser prairie chickens under the Endangered Species Act, a year and a half to lose those protections in court, and now, nearly a year later, the agency still has done nothing for the birds,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our only choice was to petition for new protections, because without the Endangered Species Act, the birds won’t make it.”