The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is proposing to list two distinct populations of the lesser prairie-chicken (LPC) as protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). USFWS is seeking comment from the public, industry and the scientific community before it makes its determination.
The LPC currently occupies a five-state range that includes Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado and faces several threats, including the degradation and fragmentation of its habitat, according to USFWS.
“The loss of America’s native grasslands and prairies of the southern Great Plains has resulted in steep declines for the [LPC] and other grassland birds,” said USFWS Regional Director Amy Lueders in a statement. “For more than two decades, the Service has supported and encouraged our partners’ voluntary efforts to conserve the [LPC].
“Together, we have made great strides in conserving key habitat and raising awareness about threats to the [LPC], but we still have much work to do to ensure we have viable lesser prairie-chicken populations. The Service will continue to closely partner with diverse stakeholders across the [LPC]’s range to restore this iconic species.”
Under the proposal, the Southern distinct population, which includes populations in eastern New Mexico and across the southwest Texas Panhandle, would be listed as endangered. Under an endangered listing, development in habitats known to be critical to the LPC would be severely curtailed.
The Northern distinct population, which encompasses southeastern Colorado, southcentral to southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle, would be threatened with an ESA 4(d) rule that tailors protections. According to USFWS, the 4(d) rule would exempt any “take” of the bird “associated with the continuation of routine agricultural practices or the implementation of prescribed fire.” The ESA defines take as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”
Through aerial surveys, USFWS estimated the five-year average population in the five states is 27,384 birds. USFWS stated the LPC once numbered in the “hundreds of thousands” and has lost 90 percent of its habitat due to fragmentation and habitat loss, despite voluntary conservation efforts.
In 2020, USDA released a report detailing the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s (LPCI) conservation measures in the southern Great Plains. The LPCI is part of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and invested $41.67 million in the conservation of 1.61 million acres of working lands with 883 participating landowners.
In the proposed listing by USFWS, the agency stated conversion of grasslands to crop production impacted the “amount of habitat available and how fragmented the remaining habitat is for the [LPC], leading to overall decreases in resiliency and redundancy throughout [its] range.”
However, USFWS notes grazing by livestock does not have a detrimental effect on the bird and “in many cases, is needed to maintain appropriate vegetative structure.” But grazing that results in “overutilization of forage” and a decrease in plant diversity “can produce habitat conditions that differ in significant ways from the historical grassland mosaic,” USFWS said.
The LPC became a candidate for listing under the ESA in 1998 and was listed as a threatened species in 2014. The listing was vacated in 2015 following a lawsuit. In 2016, environmental groups petitioned USFWS to list the bird under the ESA. The groups sued for USFWS’ failure to make a decision on the petition in a timely manner, prompting USFWS to reconsider the listing.
“We’re thrilled to see these magnificent dancing birds finally getting the strong [ESA] protection they need to survive,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The [LPC] has to deal with drilling rigs, pipelines and the deadly heat waves that burning all that oil and gas brings about. These safeguards are coming not a moment too soon.”
Ag groups disappointed
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and Public Lands Council (PLC) expressed disappointment with the decision to list the LPC despite “a decades-long conservation partnership directly disincentives continuation of effective, public-private conservation partnerships.”
“The scientific data supports our belief that voluntary conservation work—led by producers—is the most effective way to provide stability for the birds and their habitat. Ranchers have kept up their end of conservation agreements with the federal government and this designation tells those private landowners that their considerable private investment doesn’t count,” said NCBA Executive Director of Natural Resources and PLC Executive Director Kaitlynn Glover.
“This is a terrible message to send at the very moment when the administration is seeking to enlist our industry’s help with a broad slew of conservation goals that can only succeed with strong public-private partnerships.”
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) along with co-signers Jerry Moran (R-KS), Roger Marshall (R-KS), James Lankford (R-OK) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urging against listing the LPC under the ESA.
The letter stated the senators support voluntary public-private conservation efforts resulting in the increase in population growth.
“A premature listing sends the wrong message to the private partners who have invested important resources and adopted conservation practices to protect the LPC and prevent a listing. A premature listing would undermine the confidence of the private sector in the [USFWS] and their willingness to maintain ongoing conservation activity related to the LPC or any other species under ESA consideration in the future. Instead, the [USFWS] should recognize, respect, and reward the private sector for their conservation efforts,” the letter said.
USFWS will hold two public hearings via Zoom on July 8 and 14, and comments can be submitted at www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS–R2–ES–2021–0015. For more information on the announcement and links to the Zoom meetings, visit fws.gov/southwest/es/LPC.html and click on “press release.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor