Pursuant to court rulings by Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed the lesser prairie chicken from its list of endangered or threatened wildlife.
Junell’s ruling in September in a lawsuit brought by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and several New Mexico counties overturned the bird’s listing as “threatened.” He upheld that ruling on Feb. 29.
Lesli Gray, public affairs specialist with the service, said that removing the chicken from the listing does not constitute action “on our part” regarding the biological determination of whether or not the species merits listing as an endangered or threatened species.
“We are doing a species status assessment using the best scientific information available,” she said in a phone interview.
She said the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with stakeholders such as the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies , which is overseeing a range-wide conservation plan in the five states where the bird has habitat: Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. Other partners include the service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program and Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative and a joint program of the Bureau of Land Management Candidate Conservation Agreement and Center of Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances in New Mexico and other individual conservation agreements with private landowners.
Ben Shepperd, president of the PBPA, said he was pleased with the action.
“It’s the culmination of many years work on endangered species issues and we’re pleased (Judge Junell’s ruling) vindicated our efforts,” he said in a phone interview.
Shepperd said that PBPA members had worked hard and made “massive commitments” to do the right thing for the land, plants and animals, while still allowing industry to operate.
“And this affects all of us, not just oil and gas,” he said.
He said he “shudders to think, in this poor economic climate, what the Endangered Species Act might have done to the industry, not just the lesser prairie chicken but the dunes sagebrush lizard as well. And there are some more species on the horizon that we’re evaluating now. We plan to remain vigilant.”
Bill Van Pelt, grasslands coordinator with the Western Association, said in an email, “We are pleased the USFWS is going to continue to work with WAFWA on the LPC conservation. The judge’s decision to direct the USFWS to remove the lesser prairie chicken was directly linked to voluntary participation in the five-state lesser prairie chicken range-wide conservation plan. To date, over $61 million has been collected from participating companies. In turn, an endowment has been set up to work with landowners, which has put 132,028 acres of habitat conservation on the ground throughout the range of the species. Continued participation in the conservation plan will maintain management at the state level.”
The Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, criticized the action, saying in a press release the service removed the listing without proposing new protections for the birds. The center says the prairie chicken population has declined by more than 13 percent since last year.
“The service’s own scientists have warned that losing even a small amount of suitable habitat could send these magical birds into a death spiral,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney for the center, in the press release. “Yet, even with populations declining and habitat dwindling to dangerous levels, the agency is giving up and failing to propose new protections critical to this unique bird’s survival.”
“There are a lot of programs doing good things for the chicken,” she said.
She said there is no timeline for when the service will make a determination on whether to again list the species.
The lesser prairie-chicken, a species of prairie grouse renowned for its colorful spring mating display, has been considered a species in trouble for almost two decades, according to the FWS. Once abundant across much of the five range states, its historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent.