The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s March 27 listing of the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act has ruffled feathers of state leaders and land users in the Southwest, particularly after years of coalition efforts to restore bird numbers.

Under FWS’s announcement, new protections for the lesser prairie chicken will take effect May 1, and would limit land uses for oil and gas exploration, ranching and grazing, and other traditional uses.

Elected officials in Kansas and Oklahoma have already planned legal responses to challenge the FWS ruling. Oklahoma filed a lawsuit contending the FWS did not follow proper procedure in its decision, and Kansas joined the lawsuit on Wednesday.

Other states affected by the decision, namely New Mexico, Colorado and Texas, are also disputing the federal agency’s findings, and saying the states’ collaborative conservation plans were not given adequate consideration.

When a species is listed as “threatened” under ESA laws, it means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future, according to FWS. It falls below an “endangered” listing and grants more flexibility for implementation of federal protections.


In its announcement, FWS said the conservation efforts of states and private landowners played a role in keeping the designation to “threatened” and allowing the use of a 4(d) rule under the ESA. That rule will give states more control in conservation efforts and regulation of activities.

Read the full Fish and Wildlife Service announcement.

“The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation,” the FWS said in a statement.

“The lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits,” said Dan Ashe, director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Our determination that it warrants listing as a threatened species with a special rule acknowledges the unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states for management of the species. Working through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ range-wide conservation plan, the states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species – more than has ever been done before – and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements.”

Lesser prairie chicken counts have taken an 84 percent dive over the past 15 years in the five-state region, with 2013 numbers reported at 17,616 birds – a drop of 50 percent in one year alone. The states’ conservation plan aims for 67,000 birds range-wide, according to the FWS.

Cattle ranchers have been at the forefront in working to boost lesser prairie chicken numbers over the past several years. Projects done with private ranchers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service led to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative in efforts to improve habitat.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, while concerned about the impact of a listing of "threatened" for the bird, praised the 4(d) rule usage in its recognition of the states' efforts to improve conservation of the species.

"The rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation."

Some critics have targeted ranching as a traditional use that has damaged lesser prairie chicken habitat, along with oil and gas excavation, windmills, urban development, wildfire and to a larger extent drought.

Environmentalists aren’t happy with the FWS announcement either, as it grants those stakeholders who worked on the states’ conservation plan more latitude and some exemptions under the 4(d) rule.

"The problem with the recently completed conservation agreements for the prairie chicken is that they have no proven record of success," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife in a press statement.

"They fail to provide adequate conservation measures and defer almost entirely to state wildlife agencies for the oversight and implementation of the agreements. The (FWS) is clearly walking away from its oversight and enforcement responsibilities and is setting a dangerous precedent for accountability under the ESA." end mark

Photo by Marcus Miller, courtesy of NRCS New Mexico.