The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has re-listed two populations of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, saying the species is in danger of extinction, largely due to habitat loss.
In a press release on their website, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the southern distinct population segment (DPS) and the northern DPS will be re-listed as threatened. The USFWS says the birds need large, undisturbed swaths of native grasslands if they are going to rebound in numbers. Officials did surveys over the last ten years that indicate a population of just 32,210 birds across their five-state range. USFWS officials say a decline in sagebrush, mixed and short prairie grasses, and shinnery oak are partially to blame for the dropping numbers.
“The lesser prairie-chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril,” USFW Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders said in a press release. “These habitats support a diversity of wildlife and are valued for water quality, climate resilience, grazing, hunting and recreation.”
The USFWS says they are working with their partners on conservation of both the species and its habitat. Building the Conservation Reserve Program has conserved millions of acres of land in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico for the bird.
However, the news of the re-listing is already setting off a firestorm of debate. This marks the second time in recent years that the prairie chicken has been added to the endangered species list. The birds were first listed in 2014 but were later de-listed following a lawsuit and a court ruling. This new decision will affect prairie chicken populations in New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. According to the Associated Press, Congressional Republicans are already planning to fight the latest decision in court.
Much of the argument over the conservation of the prairie chicken hinges on the oil and gas industry, which critics say will be hurt by the habitat protections that come with an endangered species designation in prairie chicken habitat. These critics favor voluntary conservation programs that many companies are already participating in. Kansas Senator Jerry Moran called the listing an “overreach” in a press release on his website.
“This decision threatens to place unnecessary restrictions on farmers, ranchers, and energy producers,” Moran said in the release. “Kansas and surrounding states are committed to preserving the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat area and have contributed millions of public and private dollars to conservation efforts.”
The USFWS’ decision on the prairie chicken ultimately comes later than many prairie chicken advocates would have liked. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the USFWS in October, saying the USFWS was more than five months overdue to deliver their final ruling. The Center has been very critical of the oil and gas industry’s response to prairie chicken conservation efforts. In a press release on their website, Michael Robinson of the Center praised the USFWS for finally delivering a ruling, but he also criticized the USFWS for delaying action on the species for decades.
“This is terrific news for these fascinating birds and the overlooked and much-exploited prairies where they live,” Robinson said in a Center for Biological Diversity press release. “We wish that the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection for 27 years, because quicker action would have meant a lot more lesser prairie chickens alive in a lot more places today. We’ll watch the next steps closely to ensure there are also strong protections for the wild places where these birds live.”
It seems the battle for prairie chicken protections is only just heating up again. We’ll keep an eye on this conservation story and bring you new updates as they come in.
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READ MORE: LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKEN: RANGE, STATUS, AND THEIR INCREDIBLE CALLS
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