Much to the dismay of people in agriculture and other industries in the Southern Plains, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the lesser prairie chicken as a “threatened” species that requires more protection from development and other impacts from businesses.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials recognized the controversy involved in the decision by noting a final special rule for the lesser prairie chicken meant to “limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing.”
“Threatened” is a step below the designation of “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service stated the special rule would allow the five states involved in the listing — Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas — to manage conservation efforts for the bird while avoiding more regulations on industries such as oil and natural development.
“The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Our determination that it warrants listing as a threatened species with a special rule acknowledges the unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states for management of the species.
The agency stated in a news release that the lesser prairie chicken has been in trouble for the past 15 years. The bird’s population has been in decline because of habitat loss in the Southern Plains. The recent droughts in the Plains have further exacerbated the population decline.
While praising efforts by the states to collaborate and create a plan that would boost the bird’s population from roughly 17,600 birds to 67,000, threats affecting the species would continue. The Fish and Wildlife Service noted, “The lesser prairie chicken is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future and warrants listing as threatened under the (Endangered Species Act). The agency is under a court-ordered deadline to make a listing determination on the species by March 31.”
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said Fish and Wildlife was taking the wrong approach and pre-empting a voluntary plan developed by the states and private businesses, including rural cooperatives. The partnership had commitments of $21 million to help mitigate damage to the bird’s habitat on more than 3.6 million acres, NRECA stated.
“The listing will impose heavy burdens on local cooperatives at a time when many local economies are still struggling and will likely prove ineffectual,” said NRECA CEO Jo Ann Emerson. “This decision to list the lesser prairie chicken also wastes an opportunity to try an innovative, collaborative approach to species conservation that many local stakeholders have developed.”
Congressmen, senators and governors from some of the states involved called the designation a regulatory overreach by the agency. “Today’s decision, which has real-world consequences for Texas families, landowners and businesses, is a missed opportunity to acknowledge Texans’ unprecedented conservation efforts,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “I will continue to fight to reform this process so job creators and local officials have a say.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he was disappointed in the decision and believes the conservation efforts taken by the five states “were more than sufficient to warrant a non-listing” of the bird. The decision simply translated into additional arbitrary regulatory burdens that harm the economy.
He added, “This means Oklahoma farmers, ranchers and energy producers will have to abide to an additional layer of burdensome regulations.”
Four bills have been introduced in the House Natural Resources Committee to overhaul the Endangered Species Act as well as curb litigation by environmental groups to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to take action to protect a particular species. A hearing on the bills is set for April 8.
Some environmental and conservation groups were disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not go farther in its announcement to protect the chicken. David Festa, a vice president with the Environmental Defense Fund, said it’s a sad day when any species is listed. He said more could be done to engage private landowners about conservation practices to help protect the lesser prairie chicken.
“The bright spot is that the service has opened the door to innovative approaches for species conservation, as demonstrated by its commitment to range-wide planning. By sharing the responsibility for species protection with the states and private landowners, the service has increased the potential for recovery of the lesser prairie chicken. This is a big evolution in how the act gets implemented.”