WASHINGTON (CN) – A court ruling favoring oil companies over lesser prairie chickens has forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw their threatened status listing for the birds. Conservationists warn that the agency’s removal of the Endangered Species Act listing without a clear plan for implementing other protections will spell the end of the iconic American bird known for its colorful and loud mating dance across the prairies of five states.
“The Service’s own scientists have warned that losing even a small amount of suitable habitat could send these magical birds into a death spiral,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “Yet, even with populations declining and habitat dwindling to dangerous levels, the agency is giving up and failing to propose new protections critical to this unique bird’s survival.”
The ruling by a Texas judge last fall vacated the Endangered Species Act protections for the birds, in a suit filed by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association (PBPA) and several New Mexico counties against the Department of Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their directors, according to the Service’s announcement on Tuesday that it had withdrawn the listing to comply with the court’s decision. The listing withdrawal is scheduled for publication Wednesday.
“Responding to this court ruling by removing the bird from the Federal List does not mean we are walking away from efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Far from it. We are undertaking a new status review to determine whether listing is again warranted, and we will continue to work with our state partners and others on efforts to protect vital habitat and ensure this flagship of the prairies survives well into the future,” Service Director Dan Ashe said.
The WildEarth Guardians conservation group had petitioned the Service on behalf of the birds in 1995, but while the agency found that listing was warranted, it was precluded by higher listing priorities. The Guardians sued the agency in 2010 for its failure to follow through on the listing, and the suit was later combined with others filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, which resulted in a 2011 settlement agreement and a multi-year work plan for the agency to fast track listing decisions for hundreds of species that had been in listing limbo for years.
The lesser prairie chickens were listed as a threatened species under the ESA in April 2014, though conservationists continued to maintain that they should be listed as an endangered species. Two months later, the PBPA, an association based in Midland, Texas, of more than 1,000 oil-related companies, filed suit, claiming among other things, that the agency had not pursued its own Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts.
A voluntary plan spanning the five states of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas where the prairie grouse are found, was put in place before the ESA listing was finalized. Last July, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) claimed that in its first year the plan had been responsible for a 25 percent population increase in the birds.
However, it appears that those gains have dwindled and the population of lesser prairie chickens continues to decline, according to the Guardian’s statement earlier this month, which claimed that the WAFWA documented a loss of 4,000 birds since 2015. “The decline, documented by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), comes despite promises by state and local governments and industry to preserve the bird,” the Guardians said.
WAFWA, however, maintains that the short-term fluctuation of the loss of 4,000 birds out of a population of only 25,261 is not significant due to “the variability in the survey methodology.”
“Habitat destruction continues, and voluntary conservation programs aren’t getting the job done: this bird needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act now,” Guardian biologist Erik Molvar said.
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