The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is scheduled to announce its final decision on whether to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as an Endangered Species under the federal Endangered Species Act in June. If FWS chooses to list this species, it would mandate the designation and protection of critical habitat, put criminal penalties in place for harming the bird, and require industry to mitigate any negative impacts they have on the species.
If we have any hope of saving the Lesser Prairie Chicken from extinction, then listing the bird as endangered is essential. While states like New Mexico have worked hard to turn the Lesser Prairie Chicken situation around, unfortunately results matter and, as all ranchers know, you don’t put food on the table with effort. It takes results, and current and past efforts have not delivered them. Since formal nationwide bird monitoring began in the 1960s, Lesser Prairie Chicken populations have declined by 97% across their range. This decline is one of the most precipitous among all bird life in the U.S. and will ultimately lead to extinction if not addressed.
Ensuring the future existence of this bird will come at a cost. In the limited areas where the species remain, they require a wide-open prairie landscape devoid of vertical structures – e.g. trees, power lines, drilling rigs, etc. – with healthy stands of native grass and forbs. Both fossil fuel and renewable energy production are incompatible with the habitat conditions these birds need, as is the overgrazing of livestock – meaning these activities will have to be curtailed in the areas designated as “critical habitat” for the bird.