The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing the population of lesser prairie chicken within New Mexico as endangered.
The lesser prairie chicken—which despite its name is not a chicken, but a grouse—is divided into two distinct population groups. The southern group includes birds living in parts of Texas and New Mexico in the Permian Basin area.
“Lesser prairie chickens, known for their loud and showy mating rituals, are one of America’s most unique grassland birds,” Amy Leuders, the southwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said during a press conference on Thursday. “For generations, people have marveled at the strutting, dancing and booming sounds displayed each spring on their leks.”
She said the birds are synonymous with healthy prairies because they need “large unfragmented parcels of intact native grasslands to support self-sustaining populations.”
In total, there are about 32,000 birds in both population groups, though there were once hundreds of thousands of lesser prairie chickens in the United States. The bird is found in five states—Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. Of the approximately 32,000 birds, less than 4,000 live in the southern range.
“Their decline reflects the larger decline in the vitality and resilience in our shinnery oak, sand sagebrush and mixed and short grass prairie ecosystems,” Leuders said.
In addition to supporting wildlife, Leuders said those ecosystems are important for water quality, carbon sequestration, grazing and recreation.
The lesser prairie chicken has lost about 90 percent of its historic habitat. Leuders said habitat loss and fragmentation will continue in the future.
“Genetic diversity and exchange of genes across the landscape relies upon having landscapes that are intact and where birds can move around the landscapes,” Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Clay Nichols said.
He said there are two types of conservation methods. One involves enhancing the existing habitat and the other involves restoring habitat to increase connectivity.
Habitat restoration activities could include removing woody vegetation.
The habitat loss and fragmentation comes from grazing, energy development, climate change and loss of grasslands in part due to fire suppression.
When fire is suppressed in the grasslands, it leads to trees and shrubs encroaching. In the southern population area, this could be mesquite encroaching into the prairie. In the northern population area, it’s often eastern red cedar.
The lesser prairie chicken avoids tall structures that could provide perches for predators like hawks.
New Mexico’s oil and gas industry has been concerned about the pending listing and how it could impact development, but Fish and Wildlife Service officials say there are ways that energy development can continue in compliance with the protections the bird is receiving.
When asked by the Carlsbad Current-Argus about concerns surrounding impacts to oil and gas industries and what message he would have for the communities, Nichols said that the bird is an indicator of ecosystem health and when the ecosystem suffers, so does the local economy.
“Grasslands are estimated to be the most endangered ecosystem in North America,” he said.
Nichols said a lot of Permian Basin oil and gas operators have agreements in place that are intended to protect the lesser prairie chicken while also allowing extraction to occur.
Additionally, in the Carlsbad area, Nichols said 90 percent of the extraction is happening outside of lesser prairie chicken habitat and that the listing should have minimal effects on the oil and gas industry.
Leuders said that particularly in the Permian Basin there are lots of opportunities to avoid impacting the lesser prairie chicken without harming the industries.
She said technology like directional drilling is helping operators avoid impacting the lesser prairie chicken.
While reviewing whether to list the species, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the southern population is in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. The northern population, which is found in parts of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, will be listed as threatened.
A final rule will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 26 and the endangered species status will go into effect 60 days later.