‘Threatened’ status argued in prairie chicken squabble

Staff Writer
Pawhuska Journal-Capital
‘Threatened’ status argued in prairie chicken squabble

A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the lesser prairie chicken on its list of threatened species has brought divergent criticism of the announced protection plan, which is set to take effect on May 1.

The listing drew the ire of several wildlife conservation organizations expressing dissatisfaction with the amount of legal protection a “threatened” status will afford to the rapidly diminishing grassland grouse.

Three conservationist groups who reportedly represent more than 1.7 million members formally objected to the proposed new listing for the lesser prairie chicken. The three groups — Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — also filed notice in federal court of their intentions to sue the USFWS unless the bird’s listing is upgraded from threatened to endangered with mandatory rules and enforcement.

“An unenforceable state-level plan and voluntary measures are too little, too late, and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The lesser prairie-chicken needs the full protection of the Endangered Species Act to stem the tide of habitat destruction.”

Certain conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, derided the decision as an “overreach” by federal regulators intent on disrupting fossil-fuel energy production and infringing on the property rights of farmers and ranchers.

Energy producers are concerned the restrictive “endangered” status will have negative effects on oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in Oklahoma and the other four states (Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas) which provide habitat for the gamebirds.

Oil, gas and wind industry representatives had worked with federal and affected-state wildlife officials, as well as property owners, to develop a range-wide plan (RWP) which provides payments to landowners for making their property more livable for prairie chickens. In addition, it requires companies that degrade the birds’ domain will now have to compensate landowners for create more of the habitat elsewhere.

So far, more than $20 million has been committed by a consortium of 32 oil, gas, wind and electric transmission companies toward the enhancement and development of critical lesser prairie chicken habitat that will cover nearly four million acres in the five affected states.

USFWS Director Dan Ashe said the designation is one step below “endangered” status and allows for more flexibility in how protections for the bird will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act. He said the “threatened” designation was necessary because of habitat fragmentation, population declines, drought and threats from development that cut lesser prairie chicken populations in half between 2012-13.

Ashe added that he knew the declaration would be unpopular with the partisan governors of the five affected states, Ashe said the best science available indicated it was vital to the survival efforts.

“The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits,” the director said, pointing to declining populations that have gone on for over a decade. “They’ve lost 84 percent of the shortgrass prairie, which this bird depends on as its home.”

According to the USFWS rule declaration released March 27: “In response to the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie-chicken, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced the final listing of the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as a final special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that will limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing. Under the law, a ‘threatened’ listing means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.”

The final rule is to become effective 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt recently filed a federal lawsuit over the Obama administration’s decision to settle environmental group litigation over the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken and other species.

The attorney general for Kansas later announced his state’s intentions to become part of the Oklahoma case.

In the lawsuit, Pruitt alleges “federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups and using ‘sue and settle’ tactics that encourage lawsuits that can be settled on terms favorable to the groups that filed them.”

Ashe denied collusion with any group and said the agency is hoping to avoid litigation over the lesser prairie chicken ruling.

Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma expressed disappointment over the lesser prairie chicken ruling, adding that she believes state and federal officials “have a unique opportunity to show how a plan based in state management of this species can allow for a quick recovery” and eventual de-listing of the bird.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said he’s concerned the decision will hurt his state’s economy.