The lesser prairie chicken can be found in the southern Great Plains, but it’s roaming on less than 90% of its historical range. Wildlife officials say one of its remaining populations is at risk of extinction. To help protect the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending that it be listed on the Endangered Species Act. However, the move is already facing outcry about its possible impact on agricultural producers.
USFWS Regional Director Amy Lueders says, “The loss of America’s native grasslands and prairies of the southern Great Plains has resulted in steep declines for the lesser prairie-chicken and other grassland birds.
“For more than two decades, the Service has supported and encouraged our partners’ voluntary efforts to conserve the lesser prairie chicken. Together, we have made great strides in conserving key habitat and raising awareness about threats to the lesser prairie-chicken, but we still have much work to do to ensure we have viable lesser prairie chicken populations.”
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, about 95% of the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat is privately held. Agricultural producers in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado have been voluntarily conserving some of their lands to help sustain the bird’s habitat.
Under the proposal, the population in two of the states – New Mexico and Texas – would be listed as endangered. Meanwhile, the population in the remaining states would be listed as threatened. These listings would ban any activity that degrades or eliminates the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat.
A similar effort to list the bird was made in 2014, but it was struck down in courts in 2016, with rulings that the FWS did not properly consider voluntary conservation efforts made by landowners. Kansas also passed a law in response that gave the state the sole power of regulating the lesser prairie chicken.
As the new listing effort was announced, Kansas’ two Senators immediately spoke out, voicing concerns about the possible impacts the move could have on the state’s economy, farmers, and ranchers. Meanwhile, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt says the state may challenge the effort again.
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This time, the FWS said it considered the impacts of voluntary efforts by landowners before making the proposal.
Service biologist Clay Nichols says it’s important to do what can be done now, explaining, “The current threats acting on the landscape are expected to either continue at the same levels or increase in severity in the foreseeable future. Habitat loss is projected to outpace conservation efforts to restore habitat.”
According to the FWS, the lesser prairie chicken used to number in the hundreds of thousands across the southern Great Plains, but now it’s down to about 27,000 birds. This is largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. To survive, the animals need large tracts of mostly intact native grasslands and prairies.
There’s currently a 60-day public comment period on the proposal, which will be followed by two public hearings in July.
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