FWS plucks federal protections from lesser prairie chicken

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2016


The Fish and Wildlife Service is formally removing the lesser prairie chicken from the list of threatened species, a move required by a recent court order.

But the agency is leaving the door open to potentially restoring Endangered Species Act protections for the imperiled member of the prairie grouse family.

“Responding to this court ruling by removing the bird from the Federal List does not mean we are walking away from efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Far from it,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement today.

“We are undertaking a new status review to determine whether listing is again warranted, and we will continue to work with our state partners and others on efforts to protect vital habitat and ensure this flagship of the prairies survives well into the future,” he added.

Federal protections for the bird will end tomorrow, when the final delisting rule is published in the Federal Register. At that point, the prairie chicken will be dropped from both the threatened list and the list of candidate species, for which protections are warranted but precluded by more pressing priorities.

But the bird will remain eligible for candidate conservation agreements and candidate conservation agreements with assurances, two FWS programs that reward habitat protections efforts on public and private lands.

Renowned for its elaborate spring mating dance, 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 — a troubling outcome that the administration warned of when defending its threatened listing (Greenwire, July 1).

Some conservationists were quick to criticize the agency today for removing protections from the species without having a new listing proposal ready.

“Even with populations declining and habitat dwindling to dangerous levels, the agency is giving up and failing to propose new protections critical to this unique bird’s survival,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “Without Endangered Species Act protections, there’s an ever-escalating chance we’ll lose these rare birds forever.”

But Republican opponents of the listing celebrated the FWS rule.

“I am glad that the court agreed with me and the 9 Senators, representing all five states, who told FWS in 2013 that the states’ conservation plan should have time to be implemented before a listing can be properly assessed,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said in a press release. “That time has come, and I expect the states’ plan will prove successful in addressing the [lesser prairie chicken] population while also supporting the unique economic needs of each state and their communities.”

Inhofe and GOP Reps. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Steve Pearce of New Mexico have tried for years to legislatively delist the bird. Federal protections made it harder to drill for oil and natural gas or pursue other development in areas where the prairie chicken was known to live or breed.