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

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.

Advocacy group: Federal agency violated Endangered Species Act

The Center for Biological Diversity says that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the Endangered Species Act when it comes to protecting the lesser prairie chicken. The service published a proposed rule in June 2021 to list two distinct population segments of the lesser prairie chicken. 

The Center for Biological Diversity alleges that the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to finalize the proposed rule in a timely manner. In a court filing made Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity stated that it intends to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service if the rule is not finalized in the next 60 days. The proposed rule would list the lesser prairie chicken living in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, northwest Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle as threatened and the population living in west Texas and eastern New Mexico would be listed as endangered. The Center for Biological Diversity says that the rule should have been finalized in June of this year under Endangered Species Act requirements.

Lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico could be listed as endangered

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.

Audit finds ‘inappropriate’ handling of funds for lesser prairie chicken conservation

A conservation program that industry groups and landowners hoped would keep the lesser prairie chicken off the federal Endangered Species Act list has fallen short of its conservation mission and wasted millions in the process, according to an independent audit of the program.

The lesser prairie chicken has been under consideration for Endangered Species Act protections for more than 20 years and was listed as a threatened species, a step down from endangered species designation, from 2014 to 2016. 

A group of five states that share the lesser prairie chicken range — New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma — developed in 2013 a voluntary conservation program with land owners, ranchers and oil and gas companies through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a consortium of state fish and game agencies across the West. WAFWA has managed the program for landowners and oil and gas developers to buy into in order to assure protections for remaining lesser prairie chicken habitat. 

ESA rules could spell trouble for the lesser prairie chicken

The lesser prairie chicken can’t catch a break. The fowl, a relative of the sage grouse, has the misfortune of calling portions of the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico home. Grazing, oil and gas development and water scarcity in southeastern New Mexico has decimated the bird’s population in New Mexico over the last 25 years. 

The species was briefly listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, but after a series of lawsuits from industry groups, the bird’s listing is currently caught in bureaucratic limbo. Officials in southeastern New Mexico have pledged to keep fighting against attempts to protect it. And now, tweaks to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) could spell extinction for the bird.