Feds eye endangered species listing for lesser prairie chicken

Lesser prairie chicken. Photo courtesy Doug Holt/USFWS.

Cooperative habitat conservation plans could avert final listing

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Endangered species and energy development will clash again in the south-central U.S. as federal biologists this week proposed adding the lesser prairie chicken to the endangered species list.

This decision could trigger new scrutiny by state and federal wildlife agencies on permits and operations for energy developers and ranchers that could impact the bird’s habitat in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado — states that are prime grounds for oil, gas and wind development, as well as farming and ranching.

The listing proposal is part of the Service’s efforts to implement a court-approved work plan that resolves a series of lawsuits concerning the agency’s ESA listing duties. The intent of the agreement is to significantly reduce litigation and allow the agency to focus its resources on the species most in need of the ESA’s protections.

While the announcement elicited the typical knee-jerk reaction from some Republican western lawmakers, conservation advocates explained that the listing doesn’t automatically mean energy development will be throttled.

“In the past, these kinds of ESA listing decisions have led to years of litigation and conflict,” said David Festa, vice president of the land, water and wildlife program for Environmental Defense Fund. “Now, with the lesser prairie chicken, we’re working with land users to set up Wildlife Habitat Exchanges that provide cooperative, cost-effective habitat conservation.”

“We are encouraged by current multi-state efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat, but more work needs to be done to reverse its decline” said USFWS director Dan Ashe. “Similar to what state and federal partners in this region accomplished when the dunes sagebrush lizard was proposed, we must redouble our important work to identify solutions that provide for the long-term conservation of the species and also help working families remain on the land they have stewarded for generations,” Ashe said.

EDF is working with landowners, developers and energy companies to design a new, cooperative approach to conservation that promises ample habitat protection at low cost – potentially enough habitat to reverse dwindling populations and avert a final listing under the law.

This approach, known as wildlife habitat exchanges, enlists private landowners like ranchers and farmers to create and maintain vital habitat, which energy companies and other developers can in turn use to meet their obligations to protect wildlife.

Once found in abundant numbers across much of the five states of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, the lesser prairie-chickens’ historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent. The State of Colorado has listed the species as threatened. The Service first identified the lesser prairie-chicken as a candidate for ESA protection in 1998.

The lesser prairie-chicken is a species of prairie grouse commonly recognized for its feathered feet and stout build. Plumage of the lesser prairie-chicken is characterized by a cryptic pattern of alternating brown and buff-colored barring. Males display brilliant yellow-orange eyecombs and reddish-purple air sacs during courtship displays.

There has been a substantial decrease in the range of the species primarily as a result of habitat fragmentation and loss caused by development and conversion of the species’ native grassland habitat to agriculture. The lesser prairie-chicken requires large areas of intact native grassland and shrubland to maintain self-sustaining populations. Habitat loss has resulted in reduced populations of lesser prairie-chickens, making them especially vulnerable to ongoing impacts on the landscape.

“There’s an energy boom in the West and Wildlife Habitat Exchanges allow for thoughtful, well-planned mitigation strategies that will result in measurable conservation benefits for wildlife species like the lesser prairie chicken,” said Eric Holst, senior director of EDF’s Working Lands program.

This cooperative approach is essential to achieving long-term results, as 90 percent of the bird’s habitat exists on private lands. Many states, farmers and ranchers are already throwing their weight behind the model: Texas used it to protect the golden cheeked warbler, and the Texas and Kansas Farm Bureaus want to see it used for the lesser prairie chicken.

The Service will make a final determination on whether to add the lesser prairie-chicken to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife based on the best available science. Members of the public and scientific community are encouraged to review and comment on the proposal during the 90-day public comment period.

“Regardless of whether the lesser prairie-chicken ultimately requires protection under the ESA, its decline is a signal that our native grasslands are in trouble,” said USFWS southwestern regional director Dr. Benjamin Tuggle. “We know that these grasslands support not only dozens of native migratory bird and wildlife species, but also farmers, ranchers and local communities across the region.”

“Habitat Exchanges are a smart solution for threatened species such as the lesser prairie chicken,” said Steve Swaffar of the Kansas Farm Bureau. “Exchanges deliver quantifiable measures of habitat and resources, at the same time giving private landowners an opportunity to derive income by providing for the specific needs of the species, and continue to use their property for agriculture production.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency has up to a year to make a final listing decision.

“EDF supports Wildlife Habitat Exchanges as a proven model that could change the trajectory of the lesser prairie chicken,” said Festa. “It can bring the species back from the brink and put it on a path toward recovery before the final listing decision is made.”


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