After Shot Down, Grouse Gets Chance for Protection

WASHINGTON (CN) – The lesser prairie chicken is once again under consideration for Endangered Species Act protection after losing its listing status in a lawsuit brought by oil interests. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to initiate a new status review in response to a Sept. 8 petition by three conservation groups after the Sept. 1, 2015 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of West Texas, which vacated the agency’s prior listing of the birds as a threatened species under the ESA.

The suit was brought by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, an organization representing more than a thousand oil-related companies, which claimed the agency had not fully evaluated existing conservation efforts. A voluntary plan covering the prairie grouse’s range in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas had been put in place before the ESA listing was finalized. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies claimed that in its first year the plan had been responsible for a 25 percent population increase in the birds.

Those claims have been contested by the groups fighting for the birds’ protection. “The science is clear: Lesser prairie chickens are gravely imperiled and unenforceable, voluntary conservation efforts alone have proven incapable of saving this unique bird,” WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director, Bethany Cotton, said. “The lesser prairie chicken needs strong, enforceable protections to ensure it not only survives, but recovers in the face of worsening climate change and habitat destruction.” The Guardians were joined in the petition by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Defenders of Wildlife.

The fate of these iconic birds, known for their booming calls and elaborate mating dance, has been a political football for decades. The agency recognized the birds’ imperiled status in 1973 in its resource list known as the “Red Book,” but no action was taken until a petition by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation and others in 1995 initiated the first status review.

A listing moratorium and budget constraints stalled action on the listing process until 1998, when the agency’s 12-month finding, which is supposed to be made within one year of receipt of a petition, determined that listing was warranted but precluded by higher listing priorities. The birds lingered in listing limbo until the WildEarth Guardians filed suit in 2010. That suit was later consolidated with other suits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity for the agency’s failure to meet listing deadlines, and a 2011 settlement agreement resulted in a six-year workplan for the agency to address the backlog of species waiting for protection.

The agency then proposed the lesser prairie chicken for a “threatened” listing status in 2012, and added a “special rule” in 2013 allowing “take” or harm, including mortality, to the birds in conjunction with oil and gas development activities. The listing was finalized in 2014, though conservationists maintained the birds really needed an “endangered” listing, which would have ruled out the special take exemptions.

The three conservation groups are calling for the agency to list the birds and three distinct population groups as endangered, and the 90-day petition finding indicates that the agency agrees there is sufficient evidence to initiate a new 12-month status review. The petition also asked that two of the population groups be listed on an emergency basis.

“With the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act, the lesser prairie chicken can be saved,” CBD’s endangered species director, Noah Greenwald, said. “We support efforts by farmers, ranchers and the oil and gas industry to protect habitat for the prairie chicken, but these efforts must be backstopped by the safeguards of the Endangered Species Act, which has been 99 percent effective at preventing extinction of species under its care and put hundreds of plants and animals on the road to recovery.”

In addition to habitat fragmentation caused by oil and gas development, agricultural conversion, wind turbines and livestock grazing, the birds face a new threat from global warming. Increasing ground temperatures threaten the survival of the eggs of these ground-nesting birds, according to the groups’ statement. The birds have lost all but 17 percent of their original range and have declined to about 25,000 birds from an estimated population of three million, they said.

“It’s more important than ever that the lesser prairie chicken receive Endangered Species Act protection,” Defenders of Wildlife’s senior staff attorney, Jason Rylander, said. “The same threats that warranted listing years ago are even more severe today and there is little evidence that voluntary conservation programs are sufficient to recover the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should promptly relist the species and develop a far better strategy to conserve it on state and private lands.”

Comments and information on the 90-day finding can be submitted until Jan. 30, 2017.

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