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Greens Challenge Lesser Prairie Chicken Listing

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the lesser prairie chicken only merits a listing status of threatened despite a drastic population decline. Noting that the threatened status under the Endangered Species Act allows the five range states to avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance, three conservation groups have banded together to legally challenge the determination, according to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

The lesser prairie chicken is a type of grouse found in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The birds are known for their elaborate booming and strutting mating displays.

The USFWS was first petitioned on behalf of the birds in 1995 but budget restrictions and higher listing priorities kept the birds in limbo until 2010, when WildEarth Guardians filed suit to force the agency to act. That case was later combined with others filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and settled in 2011, with the USFWS agreeing to submit a listing proposal by Nov. 29, 2012. The proposal actually published Dec. 11, 2012. The proposed "special rule" exemptions were published in May 2013.

While the legal wrangling continued, the birds experienced a 50 percent decline in total population just within the year from 2012 to 2013, according to the USFWS's press release. The birds' historical range has shrunk by 84 percent, the agency said.

The loss of habitat is due to fragmentation caused by conversion of the land to other uses such as development, agriculture, encroachment of trees, and oil and gas development. Trees and artificial vertical structures such as power poles, gas wells and wind turbines trigger the birds' "predator avoidance" behavior up to a mile around such structures, causing the birds to abandon traditional mating and nesting areas. Vertical structures are used as hunting perches by birds of prey, the action noted.

Because the threatened status allows it, the USFWS has implemented the "special rule" clause of the Endangered Species Act to "allow the five range states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' (WAFWA) range-wide conservation plan," according to the agency's statement. "Special rule" protection exceptions are not permitted under the endangered designation.

"The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits," USFWS Service Director Dan Ashe was quoted as saying in the agency's press release. "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 WAFWA 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."

The CBD, Defenders of Wildlife and the WildEarth Guardians beg to differ.

"The special exemptions for the lesser prairie chicken allow participants in a state organized conservation plan or other voluntary plans, to kill lesser prairie chickens and destroy their habitat. Under an agreement endorsed by the [USFWS], the oil and gas industry alone is authorized over 10 years to kill the equivalent of just under half of the remaining chicken population, which dropped to fewer than 18,000 birds last year," the CBD noted in its statement in response to the listing determination with special rule. The groups maintain the conservation plan is inadequate because its 10-year goal of "only 67,000 birds" will not sustain the species through drought and other disturbances, the habitat size designated in the plan is not big enough to sustain breeding, and the because the plan offers no expectation of enforcement.

The final listing determination and special rule are effective May 12, 2014.

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