The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing federally protected status under the Endangered Species Act for two populations of the lesser prairie-chicken that occupy parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.
“There has been a substantial decrease in the range of the species, primarily as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation,” FWS said in a Q&A, which cited factors such as “energy development, conversion of grasslands to cropland, and woody vegetation encroachment into the species’ native grassland habitat.”
FWS is proposing to list the southern distinct population segments of the bird as endangered, which under the ESA means it is in danger of extinction. That DPS “encompasses lesser prairie-chicken populations in eastern New Mexico and across the southwest Texas Panhandle,” FWS said in a news release. “Habitat in this DPS is comprised largely of shinnery oak prairie.”
FWS has proposed listing the northern DPS of the prairie chicken as threatened, which under the ESA means it is in danger of becoming endangered. This DPS “encompasses lesser prairie-chicken populations in southeastern Colorado, south-central to southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle” and short-grass, mixed-grass and sand sagebrush ecoregions.
Along with threatened status, FWS has proposed a rule for the northern DPS that would exempt routine ag operations and prescribed fire from the ESA’s prohibition against “taking” the species. The ESA defines “take” as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”
The bird’s population once numbered in the “hundreds of thousands” across the southern Great Plains, FWS said in a news release. However, aerial survey results from 2012 through 2020 estimate a five-year average LPC population of 27,384 in the five states. “It is estimated that lesser prairie-chicken habitat has diminished across its historical range by about 90 percent.”
Conversion of native grasslands to crop production “have significantly impacted the amount of habitat available and how fragmented the remaining habitat is for the lesser prairie-chicken, leading to overall decreases in resiliency and redundancy throughout [its] range,” FWS said in its proposed listing. “The impact of cropland has shaped the historical and current condition of the grasslands and shrublands upon which the lesser prairie-chicken depends.”
On an issue important to ranchers in the southern Great Plains, FWS said “grazing by domestic livestock is not inherently detrimental to lesser prairie-chicken management and, in many cases, is needed to maintain appropriate vegetative structure.”
But grazing that results in “overutilization of forage” and a decrease in plant diversity “can produce habitat conditions that differ in significant ways from the historical grassland mosaic,” FWS said. “These incompatible practices alter the vegetation structure and composition and degrade the quality of habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken.”
Inadvertent trampling of the bird’s nests also can occur, FWS said, but “the significance of direct livestock effects on the lesser prairie-chicken is largely unknown and is presumed not to be significant at a population scale.”
Ultimately, much is unknown about the impacts of grazing on the bird, FWS said.
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“While domestic livestock grazing is a dominant land use on untilled rangeland within the lesser prairie-chicken analysis area, geospatial data do not exist at a scale and resolution necessary to calculate the total amount of livestock grazing that is being managed in a way that results in habitat conditions that are not compatible with the [bird’s] needs,” FWS said. “Therefore, we did not attempt to spatially quantify the scope of grazing effects across the lesser prairie-chicken range.”
Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas criticized the decision, calling it a “reminder that this administration favors government overreach and heavy-handed regulation over cooperation with those who have been working to protect the Lesser Prairie Chicken’s habitat and growing the bird’s population across the Midwest.”
“Today’s announcement will hurt our state’s economy, hinder our oil and gas independence, increase utility costs, and prevent the development of renewable energy in prime Western Kansas locations,” Marshall said.
The National Wildlife Federation, however, said the proposal "underscores the need for swift action and investment in tools to help farmers and ranchers conserve Southern Great Plains grasslands."
“Increased resources for collaborative conservation with farmers and ranchers to conserve and restore southern Great Plains grasslands through the creation of a new North American Grasslands Conservation Act and increased funding for Farm Bill conservation programs will not only conserve species like the lesser prairie chicken, but also will create jobs, strengthen climate resilience, and ensure cleaner soil and water in this beautiful and irreplaceable North American landscape,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
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This story was edited to accurately reflect the National Wildlife Federation's reaction to the proposals.