Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) moved to place the embattled Lesser Prairie-Chicken under the Endangered Species Act’s protection. The bird’s southern subpopulation is being declared endangered, meaning that it has been deemed in danger of extinction, while the northern subpopulation is being listed as threatened, meaning that it is likely to become endangered in the future if circumstances do not change.
The southern population segment is found in western Texas and eastern New Mexico, while the northern population segment is in eastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and the northeastern panhandle of Texas.
The listings, which will take effect in mid-January, come after decades of grassland habitat loss and degradation across the species’ historic range. While historical estimates suggest Lesser Prairie-Chickens once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, across nearly 100 million acres, populations have declined drastically due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat has diminished across its historical range by about 90 percent. Aerial survey results from 2012 through 2022 estimate a five-year average population of 32,210 across the five-state region.
“The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is iconic and beloved for its unique mating ritual known as lekking,” says Steve Riley, director of Farm Bill Programs for American Bird Conservancy. “We have known for some time that listing was likely inevitable, and many people have gone to great lengths to prevent the need for listing, but we are clearly losing the battle to save this species. Unfortunately, the decline of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is a harbinger of the state of the prairies. They are being quickly lost, fragmented, and degraded due to human pressures.”
The listing announcement comes about 18 months after FWS issued a proposal to list the two prairie-chicken populations as endangered and threatened. The agency was supposed to decide the matter by June 1, 2022, and after it missed the deadline by several months, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency over the delay.
However, efforts to protect the bird with the Endangered Species Act go back to the mid-1990s. The Biodiversity Legal Foundation, now the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), petitioned to list the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as a threatened species in 1995. In 2014, FWS finally did so. But the following year, the oil and gas industry successfully challenged the listing in court based on what the CBD calls “a poorly implemented and largely ineffective conservation agreement.”
In 2016 CBD and its allies petitioned for an endangered listing for the species. The subsequent lawsuit by the Center and allies, and comments submitted in April 2021, led to last year’s proposed rule, which faced opposition from the oil and gas industry.
“This is terrific news for these fascinating birds and the overlooked and much-exploited prairies where they live,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”
Managed grazing intended to benefit the bird
In addition to the threatened listing for the northern population, Fish and Wildlife is finalizing a so-called section 4(d) rule for this group of birds. This rule gets its name from section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, which directs the Secretary of Interior (and therefore the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to issue regulations deemed “necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of” threatened species.
The 4(d) rule for the prairie-chicken applies to grazing management practices for landowners in the region where the bird is found. The landowners must follow a prescribed grazing plan developed by a qualified party that has been approved by FWS. Additionally, FWS has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to ensure that landowners receiving technical and financial assistance to implement land management efforts under the Working Lands for Wildlife Framework receive ESA predictability.
“The Service understands the vital role that managed grazing plays in maintaining grasslands and looks forward to continuing to work with partners and landowners to promote sustainable grazing practices,” the agency said in a press release. “However, there remain long-term challenges in conserving the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Voluntary conservation efforts have helped conserve key habitat for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken but have not demonstrated an ability to offset the threats and reverse the trends of habitat loss and fragmentation facing the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.”