KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Lesser prairie chickens could be listed as a threatened species in Kansas and northern stretches of the bird’s habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.
The lesser prairie chicken, which lives in prairie grass and shrubs in western Kansas, once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But with about 90% of its historical habitat gone, the service estimates only about 27,384 birds remain, based on a five-year average of aerial surveys taken between 2012 and 2020.
In the southwest, the bird’s state is even more severe. The service proposed listing the bird population in that region, a separate “distinct population segment,” as endangered, a higher level of conservation protection.
Clay Nichols, the lead biologist for the lesser prairie chicken at the service, said the northern distinct population segment was threatened by habitat loss that is outpacing efforts to conserve the bird’s natural environment. The native grass and shrubs the bird relies on for habitat are expected to become more and more fragmented.
“The northern distinct population segment of the lesser prairie chicken is not currently in danger of extinction, but is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future,” he said.
The northern distinct population of the lesser prairie chicken is in southeastern Colorado, south central and southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle. The southern population is in eastern New Mexico and the southwest Texas Panhandle.
Wednesday’s announcement was a proposed listing under the Endangered Species Act. The agency will take public comment, and it could take as much as a year for a final decision on the bird’s status.
The decision comes after a trio of conservation groups sued the federal government in 2019 to force a decision about whether the lesser prairie chicken should be listed as threatened or endangered. The lawsuit, which listed the Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as defendants, claimed the agencies were in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to make a ruling on a 2016 petition to list the birds as threatened or endangered.
Federal officials previously listed the birds as endangered in 2014 only to see that reversed by court order.
The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case, celebrated the proposal in a statement.
“We’re thrilled to see these magnificent dancing birds finally getting the strong Endangered Species Act protection they need to survive,” said Michael Robinson, the center’s senior conservation advocate. “The lesser prairie chicken has to deal with drilling rigs, pipelines and the deadly heat waves that burning all that oil and gas brings about. These safeguards are coming not a moment too soon.”
Since then, conservation efforts have been taken to save the birds. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they had not been sufficient to save the birds.
“Despite the heavy lift through these voluntary conservation efforts, they have not kept pace with the threats facing lesser prairie chickens and there remain challenges in conserving the species for the long term,” said Amy Lueders, southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wayne Walker, principal of Common Ground Capital, which works with landowners and energy companies to preserve habitat, said it was unfortunate but not surprising that the service proposed listing the bird as threatened in some regions and endangered in others. He said conservation efforts had been insufficient despite “all sorts of warnings” over the years.
“Time and time again, people have been ringing this alarm bell … and we just continue to lose more habitat by a larger amount than we’re able to save and restore,” he said.
But some elected officials decried the proposed listing.
Last week, U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall, both Kansas Republicans, joined Republican senators in Oklahoma and Texas in urging U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland not to list the species. They claimed the bird’s population was growing and that conservation efforts had paid off.
The senators wrote that a “premature listing sends the wrong message to the private partners who have invested important resources and adopted conservation practices to protect the (lesser prairie chicken) and prevent a listing.” A listing would undermine the private sector’s confidence in the service and its willingness to participate in conservation, they said.
Following the service’s announcement Wednesday, Moran said in a statement that the move “threatens to harm farmers, ranchers, energy producers and rural communities.”
“The decision to propose a listing despite voluntary conservation efforts that continue to successfully restore habitat area removes any incentive for similar locally-driven efforts to occur for other species,” Moran said. “This proposal will result in less wildlife conservation in the future, not more.”
Members of the public are asked to provide comment on the proposed listing before federal officials make a decision.
First, the service will have an informational session on July 8 at 5 p.m. central time. The public hearing will start at 6:30. To register, members of the public can visit https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcvce6tqj0pE9R9F2LsoQFVjNRv8kooxeKJ.
The service will have a second information and public comment session at the same times on July 14. Register here: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJwrfu-hqzoiG9I2Yr2hqxLpPxSu9YrLZzu5.