October 25, 2022

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces lawsuit over lesser prairie chicken

Greg Kramos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife SErvice

A male lesser prairie chicken is pictured.

An environmental advocacy group filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the agency has failed to protect the lesser prairie chicken.

The Center for Biological Diversity says a final decision in a 2021 proposal to add populations of the bird in New Mexico and Texas to the endangered species list is now five months overdue. 

The proposal calls for the southern population that lives in New Mexico and Texas to be listed as endangered while the northern population in Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and part of Texas would be listed as threatened.

Tuesday’s filing comes after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of its intent to sue in August.

“It’s haunting to think that videos of the lesser prairie chicken’s intricate dance may be all that’s left for future generations if these fascinating birds don’t get the protections they’ve been promised,” Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “The oil and gas industry has fought for decades against safeguards for the lesser prairie chicken, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is late issuing its final rule. The agency has slow-walked every step, and these imperiled birds keep losing more habitat.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and its predecessor have been trying to get the lesser prairie chicken listed on the endangered species list since 1995.

The species was listed as threatened in 2014 only to be removed from the list two years later following a legal challenge.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World states that the bird’s population has declined by an estimated 97 percent since the 1800s and its range has decreased by an estimated 92 percent. Much of the range decrease has occurred since the 1960s.

The majority of opposition to the listing comes from the agriculture and energy sectors.

Being a prey animal, the lesser prairie chicken tends to avoid vertical structures such as drilling rigs where birds of prey could perch. This also means electrical transmission lines through prairie chicken habitat can harm the bird. 

In addition to the increasing number of tall structures, conversion of habitat to cropland and grazing means there are fewer places for the lesser prairie chicken to live. Climate change, including increased temperature and drought, is also impacting the lesser prairie chicken.

These listings could limit oil and gas development as well as renewable energy projects and transmission lines in parts of eastern New Mexico.

Related: Lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico could be listed as endangered

Listing the bird as threatened or endangered has faced backlash, including from U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a New Mexico Republican. 

Herrell joined 15 other Republican members of the House of Representatives in submitting comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the listing. These members of Congress argued that industry initiatives and partnerships with government agencies have led to the bird’s population doubling since 2013.

“Agriculture and energy production are the foundation and lifeblood of our states,” the members of Congress stated in the submitted letter.

The letter highlights that New Mexico receives about a third of its budget from oil and gas industries.

They also pointed to the impact of drought on the lesser prairie chicken.

“We do not believe that our constituents should be punished with an ESA listing when something out of their control is a significant obstacle for recovery,” they wrote.