Two populations of the lesser prairie chicken could receive federal species protections amid concerns about loss of habitat.
The southern population would be listed as endangered while the northern population would receive protections as a threatened species, according to a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently accepting comments about listing the bird.
The lesser prairie chicken relies on tall grass to hide from predators and, according to the press release, it has lost habitat in about 90 percent of its historic range.
Factors leading to this habitat loss and fragmentation include energy development, grasslands being converted into farmland and woody vegetation encroaching into the grassland.
The southern population is found in eastern New Mexico and western Texas. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, its population is estimated to have dropped as low as 1,000 birds in 2015 following an extreme drought.
Efforts to get the bird listed on the endangered species list date back to 1955. The Center for Biological Diversity and its predecessor have been pushing for the listing and it was briefly listed as a threatened species in 2014. The listing was overturned after a lawsuit by the oil and gas industry.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said this listing is different because it would list the southern population as endangered.
“We think endangered is absolutely the right designation for these New Mexico birds and the ones in West Texas,” he said, explaining that listing a species as endangered creates more stringent protections for the bird.
Robinson described the lesser prairie chicken as a “profoundly beautiful and distinctive bird.”
While the northern population birds are not as imperiled as the southern birds, there are segments of the population that are struggling, including those in eastern Colorado, Robinson said. He said the Center for Biological Diversity thinks the bird should be listed as endangered throughout its range.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is working with partners and private landowners on voluntary conservation agreements, according to the press release. These agreements allow ranching, agriculture and other activities to continue regardless of the species listing and millions of acres have been enrolled in these agreements in the lesser prairie chicken’s range.
A public information session is scheduled for 4 to 5 p.m. July 8 followed by a hearing at 5:30 p.m. A second session will occur at 4 p.m. July 14.
More information can be found at fws.gov/southwest/es/LPC.html.