Federal regulators propose prairie chicken protections

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Federal environmental regulators are proposing to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in Kansas under the Endangered Species Act, setting off complaints that it would harm the state’s rural economy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it would list the bird – known for its feathered feet and stout build – as “endangered” in parts of the country and “threatened” in other areas.

Environmentalists saw the announcement as a positive step forward although it drew immediate criticism from U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall, who said it would hurt the prosperity of rural Kansas.

“Today’s announcement is promising for the increased protection of the lesser prairie-chicken and the conservation of its habitat,” Elaine Giessel, chair of the Kansas Sierra Club, said in a statement.

“We know the individual species in peril represents a key indicator of the larger health of the ecosystem; the lesser prairie chicken and other grassland bird populations have been suffering from increased industrial development and climate disruption for some time now,” Geissel said.

Moran said the proposal threatens farmers, ranchers, energy producers and rural communities in Kansas.

He said the proposed listing ignores voluntary efforts to protect the bird’s habitat and eliminates any incentive for conservation in the future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will open a 60-day public comment period to collect any new information on the proposed rule.

A final decision on the rule is about a year away.

The lesser prairie chicken is a species of prairie grouse that occupies a five-state range including portions of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.

Federal regulators are proposing to divide up the region into where the bird would be considered “endangered” or “threatened.”

Fish and Wildlife is proposing to list the birds as “endangered” in eastern New Mexico and in the western part of the Texas panhandle where there are believed to be as few as 5,000 birds remaining, with the count dropping to as low as 1,000 birds in 2015.

The bird would be listed as “threatened” in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

Regulators said the prairie chicken is not currently in danger of extinction in those areas but is likely to become at risk of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all of its range.

The proposed listing would exempt continuation of routine agricultural activities on existing cultivated lands, the agency said.

It also would exempt application of prescribed fire for grassland management.

The lesser prairie chicken’s population has dwindled by 85% since the 1800s.

2020 study done by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, however, estimated the bird’s population at 34,408, an increase from 33,094 in 2018.

The population has more than doubled from 15,397 in 2015, the study showed.

The distinction between “endangered” and “threatened” is significant because of the regulations each could bring with it to the state’s economic development interests.

The federal government defines “endangered” species as one at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

A “threatened” species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Federal regulations protect “endangered species” from being killed or harmed without federal authorization.

All of the protections of the Endangered Species Act are afforded to a species listed as “endangered.”

Meanwhile, federal regulators have more flexibility for “threatened species” so they can write rules that would require conservation efforts of any activity that might intrude on the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat.

Seven years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

However, a federal court set aside those protections after it found that the agency failed to properly evaluate the effect of voluntary conservation efforts to protect the bird.

The Kansas Livestock Association announced its opposition to the listing, saying it prefers voluntary efforts to preserve the bird’s habitat.

“It appears the FWS is playing politics with what should be a science-based listing,”  Livestock Association CEO Matt Teagarden said in a statement.

“The agency’s previous attempt to list the species was struck down by a federal court for ignoring voluntary conservation efforts,” Teagarden said.

“It appears once again, the agency has ignored voluntary conservation efforts that have helped double the species population without a government mandate.”

A spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau said the organization was still evaluating the proposed rule.

Marshall called the agency’s announcement “disappointing.”

He said it was a “reminder that this administration favors government overreach and heavy handed regulation over cooperation with those who have been working to protect the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat.”

“Instead of working with landowners to promote continued voluntary efforts the service is instead implementing a listing that limits landowner autonomy and opportunity,” he said in a statement.

“Today’s announcement will hurt our state’s economy, hinder our oil and gas independence, increase utility costs, and prevent the development of renewable energy in prime Western Kansas locations.”