Prairie Chicken Proposed for Federal Protection


     WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the lesser prairie chicken for threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, but postponed designating critical habitat until it has more information.
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     The agency found that the lesser prairie chicken is in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future and meets the definition of a threatened species.
     The grassland bird is found in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
     The proposal is part of Fish and Wildlife's efforts to implement a court-approved work plan under a 2011 settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups.
     "The intent of the agreement is to significantly reduce litigation and allow the agency to focus its resources on the species most in need of the ESA's protections," the agency said in a statement.
     The lesser prairie chicken is a prairie grouse with feathered feet and stout build. Males display yellow-orange eye combs and reddish-purple air sacs during courtship displays.
     It range has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent. There are fewer large patches of unfragmented, suitable grassland remaining that contain microhabitats the lesser prairie chickens need to support lekking (courtship behavior), nesting, brood rearing, and feeding for young and adults.
     "The lesser prairie chicken is threatened by habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, agriculture, oil and gas extraction, herbicides and unnatural fire. Habitat fragmentation from fences and power lines and disturbance from roads, mining and wind energy production also affect the species. Climate change and drought are increasingly important threats," the Center for Biological Diversity said.
     Vertical structures, such as wind turbines, are a particular problem.
     "[A] snake likely would continue to use habitat underneath a wind turbine, but the lesser prairie chicken's predator avoidance behavior causes it to avoid a large area (estimated to be a mile) around a tall vertical object," Fish & Wildlife said in its rule.
     The lek breeding system also requires males and females to be able to hear and see each other over wide distances.
     Much of the bird's historical range is separated by large expanses of unsuitable habitat. "Once fragmented, most of the factors contributing to habitat fragmentation cannot be reversed. Many types of human developments likely will exist for extended time periods and will have a significant, lasting adverse influence on persistence of lesser prairie-chickens," Fish & Wildlife said.
     The agency determined that critical habitat designation is prudent, but that it is unable to designate habitat due to lack of information.
     "Several conservation actions are currently underway that will help inform this process [of determining critical habitat] and reduce some of the current uncertainty. Incorporation of the information from these conservation actions will give [the agency] a better understanding of the species' biological requirements and what areas are needed to support the conservation of the species," the agency said.
     Comments may be submitted until March 11, 2013. Fish & Wildlife plans to hold four public meetings in February.