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Prairie bird loses its endangered status, but conservation efforts continue

Environmentalists concerned about the fate of the lesser prairie-chicken had their feathers ruffled twice over the past week.

First, the new GOP platform objected to the bird’s inclusion on the endangered species list. Second, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially stripped the chicken of its federally protected status.

But the wildlife service’s action was not voluntary. The federal agency was responding to a court ruling last fall that concluded that the service had failed to consider key questions and information when it added the prairie-chicken to the endangered species list in 2014. 

Even so, the agency vowed to continue to monitor the status of the plump, brown-colored game bird, which inhabits a range of territory that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.

“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,” the agency’s director, Dan Ashe, said in a prepared statement. “Far from it. We are undertaking a new status review to determine whether listing is again warranted. …”

Critics of the service’s efforts were quick to call Ashe’s statement a threat that could lead to a future “land grab.”

“The announcement by Director Ashe that the FWS isn’t giving up is telling: The regulators are determined to press on,” Kenny Stein, the program manager at the Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks Foundation, said in a blog post. “These kinds of threats should be anathema in a free society, but for a regulator with a hammer, the whole country looks like a nail.”

Meanwhile, a voluntary land conservation effort to help the lesser prairie-chicken expand its population continues despite the change in the bird’s federal status. Just last month, 30,000 acres, all in southwest Kansas, were purchased in support of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan.

“From the very beginning we have stated that the implementation of the range-wide plan would occur whether the bird was listed or not” as an endangered species, Bill Van Pelt, grassland initiative coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, told AMI Newswire.

The five-state conservation effort aims to increase land available to the range bird through voluntary, cooperative efforts of landowners and industry. Financed by contributions from those enrolled in the plan, the conservation effort allows for some agriculture and industry operations to continue while other impacts to the prairie-chicken’s range land are reduced.

“The lesser prairie-chicken effort is a demonstration of having an ability to work together in partnership to resolve some of these tough – and they are really tough – land management issues,” Van Pelt said.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is also moving ahead with a three-year strategy that will lead to the voluntary restoration of 500,000 acres of habitat for the prairie-chicken, he said.

In recent years, drought in the grasslands where the bird lives has taken its toll, reducing populations  by as much as 50 percent, Van Pelt said.  “It’s very well known that precipitation drives these birds.” 

One of the benefits of the voluntary conservation effort is that it will provide adequate range land to ensure the prairie-chicken population won’t fluctuate wildly, Van Pelt said. During the Dust Bowl era, some observers thought the lesser prairie-chicken went extinct, he said, and the fact that the species recovered demonstrates its resilience.

The hunting of the species was closed in all the states where it lives in 2014, Van Pelt said, but if the 10-year land conservation proves successful and helps the population rebound, hunting might be reopened in the future, although that’s unlikely in the next year or two.

The Fish and Wildlife Service points to increasing fragmentation of lands once occupied by the prairie-chicken through habitat loss, petroleum development and agriculture. The agency estimates that the range of the lesser prairie-chicken has been reduced by about 84 percent over the years.

Service spokeswoman Lesli Gray told AMI Newswire that, even though the agency would be re-evaluating the status of the species, the lesser prairie-chicken is not a candidate for the endangered species list now. In addition, any process that would reinstate the bird as an endangered species would eventually have to go through a formal public comments period.

Gray said the agency encourages people to take part in the voluntary programs. Placing the bird on endangered species list sometime in the future would generate public attention and provide additional federal resources for conservation efforts, she said.

Opponents of federal initiatives to protect the chicken, however, vow to remain vigilant. The Republican attorney general in Kansas, Derek Schmidt, said last week that a federal lawsuit his office filed against the Department of the Interior over the tactics used to protect the species is still pending.

“Before we resolve that case, we want assurances that the federal government will not later change its mind on the lesser prairie-chicken or merely shift its regulatory zeal to another species,” Schmidt said in a prepared statement.

Stein, who works on behalf of the policy and advocacy group FreedomWorks, warned: “With an Endangered Species Act listing, this largely rural and agricultural area of the country would face economically crushing federal restrictions on private land use.”