In a move that has lawmakers, farmers and ranchers, oil and gas companies, and other energy companies calling foul, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday, March 27, its plans to list the lesser prairie chicken (LPC) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species List. The listing will affect the LPC’s range which includes land in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
A “threatened” listing means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future, according to FWS. It is a step below “endangered” under ESA, and the agency says a threatened listing provides for more flexibility to implement required protections. The proposal was accompanied by a special final rule intended to allow the affected states to continue to manage conservation efforts and avoid additional regulatory requirements.
According to the FWS, the LPC was identified in 1998 as a candidate for federal protection. Since that time, federal and state officials have worked with conservation groups, landowners and other stakeholders to address population decline challenges. In 2013, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) initiated a range-wide conservation plan designed to provide “tools and incentives” to encourage landowners and other entities, including oil and gas companies, to voluntarily work with state agencies in habitat conservation efforts while still achieving land-use needs. To date, FWS reports that more than 3 million acres of land have been enrolled in the range-wide plan, the USDA NRCS Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative and other initiatives.
Despite these efforts, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the LPC is in “dire straits.”
While the service recognizes the importance of the established programs, calling them a comprehensive framework within which conservation of the LPC can be achieved, they determined a “threatened” listing was necessary because the threats to the species remain and are likely to continue, the service said.
In 2013, the LPC population was 17,616, almost 50 percent less than the 2012 population estimate. The states’ plan has a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide. According to the FWS, the primary threats to the LPC include habitat loss from converting grassland to agricultural uses; encroachment by invasive woody plants; wind energy development; petroleum production; the ongoing drought; and the presence of roads and manmade vertical structures including towers, utility lines, fences, turbines, wells and buildings.
Leaders from the range states, including governors and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have blasted FWS for the “threatened” listing.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback called it a federal overreach and announced on March 28 that the state will join other range states and take its fight against the listing to the Courts.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said while she was pleased that FWS will allow states to continue efforts under the range-wide plan, the potential impact of this listing without the range-wide plan could be damaging to her state’s economy, which relies heavily on energy and agriculture.
U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives, from the five states joined their governors in raising concerns and saying the federal listing was not necessary because of the ongoing voluntary, state-led efforts. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe said his greatest concern with the listing is that it is “easier to list a species than delist it.”
“Just look at the American Burying Beetle (ABB) in Eastern Oklahoma. The beetle has been listed as endangered since 1989, even though newly published population surveys show a population 10 times larger than the conservation goals outlined in the original ABB conservation plans,” Sen. Inhofe said. “Despite this, the ABB remains an endangered species, and it is one without a General Conservation Plan, making economic development in the ABB range very difficult to undertake. That ABB remaining listed is to the detriment of Eastern Oklahoma’s economy.”
The final rule to list the LPC and the final rule will be published in the Federal Register and will take effect 30 days after publication. The final rule can be found on the FWS website at www.fws.gov/southwest.