The Fish and Wildlife Service is granting federal protections under the Endangered Species Act to the lesser prairie chicken, which farmers and ranchers have long sought to keep off the endangered species list.

The service will designate the southern population of the bird in eastern New Mexico and across the southwest Texas Panhandle as endangered. The northern population, which includes southeastern Colorado, south-central to western Kansas, western Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle, will be listed as threatened, a designation that gives the service more flexibility to work with landowners to protect species.

The ESA prohibits “take” of endangered species, which means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” 

Those protections are automatically extended to threatened species unless FWS issues an accompanying 4(d) rule, as it has done for the prairie chicken’s northern population.

That rule “provides that farmers can continue their routine agriculture activities on existing cultivated lands,” FWS said in a press release. “In addition, it recognizes the importance of proper grazing management and includes an exception for those producers who are following a prescribed grazing plan developed by a qualified party that has been approved by the FWS.” (Go here for a copy of the rule.)

The rule also allows prescribed burning for grassland management.

No matter the designation, “We have worked to ensure there are extensive options available for streamlined ESA compliance for all industries across the entire estimated occupied range of the lesser prairie-chicken,” FWS Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders said. “Moving forward, we welcome the opportunity to work with any other interested parties to develop additional options to fit their needs while providing regulatory certainty.”

Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas reacted quickly, calling the decision “disappointing and a reminder that this administration favors government micromanagement of agriculture and heavy-handed regulation in their war against energy producers instead of working with landowners to promote continued voluntary conservation efforts.”

Marshall said the listing “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.”

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The agency said it “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. 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 bird.

FWS said that since 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service “has worked with nearly 900 landowners to implement conservation actions on approximately 1.6 million acres through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.” 

“Ranchers have been leaders in voluntary conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken, having enrolled approximately 3 million acres of land in Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas,” FWS said.

The final rule was not available from FWS but is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register Nov. 25. The listings were proposed last year.

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