press release from the Center for Biological Diversity
Proposed Endangered Species Act Protection for Rare Bird Weakened
Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Threatened in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and
Texas by Feds’ Use of Legal Loophole
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revised its proposed listing rule today for the lesser prairie chicken — a rare grouse — to include a special rule that would weaken protections for the bird once it is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The prairie chicken was proposed for Endangered Species Act protection in December, but under a special rule added to the proposal today, habitat-destroying activities would be allowed to continue in the bird’s range.
“We’re disappointed the Service is using a rule that is supposed to enhance wildlife conservation to lock the lesser prairie chicken into small areas of habitat, preclude their recovery, and give blanket approval to industrial activities that are pushing them to extinction,” said Jay Lininger with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Service amended the proposed listing to include a “4(d)” rule that will decrease the Endangered Species Act’s normal protections. Similar rules weakened protection for polar bears and have been proposed for wolverines; federal reliance on the 4(d) loophole appears to be increasing. Under the proposal, certain activities that kill prairie chickens will be allowed to continue, agriculture-related in particular.
Lesser prairie chickens have been on the waiting list for federal protection since 1998. The species was proposed for listing as a result of a 2011 settlement between conservation groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service to speed protections for hundreds of species around the country.
An indicator species for the southern Great Plains, these medium-sized, gray-brown grouse live in shinnery oak and sand-sagebrush grasslands in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Their range has been reduced by more than 90 percent, and their population has declined by approximately 85 percent, since the 1800s. The Fish and Wildlife Service identified continued population declines and myriad land uses as threats to the species’ persistence.
The lesser prairie chicken is threatened by habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, agriculture, oil and gas extraction, herbicides and unnatural fire. Habitat fragmentation from fences and power lines and disturbance from roads, mining and wind-energy production also affect the species. Climate change and drought are increasingly important threats. Purely voluntary protection efforts on private lands comprising most of the chicken’s occupied range may not do enough to prevent extinction.
Like other western grouse, male lesser prairie chickens engage in a unique, elaborate, and comical communal breeding display each spring to attract females. Both males and females congregate at breeding grounds (leks), where the males strut (“dance”), vocalize (“boom”) and physically confront other males to defend their territories and court females. The male repertoire includes displaying bright yellow eye combs, inflating red air sacs, flutter-jumping, cackling and foot-stamping.
Lesser prairie chickens live in southeastern Colorado; the southwestern quarter of Kansas; and in patchy areas in the panhandle and northwestern counties of Oklahoma. The species also occurs in east-central New Mexico and in small areas in the northeastern and southwestern corners of the Texas Panhandle. Kansas has the largest population of lesser prairie chickens, where the species relies heavily on habitat on private lands enrolled in the conservation reserve program.
“Lesser prairie chickens are amazing birds — funny and beautiful. We should do everything we can to protect them and their prairie home for our children and grandchildren to see,” said Lininger.