WASHINGTON— After years of delays, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Decimated by oil and gas drilling, agricultural expansion, and drought, the charismatic bird’s populations have sharply declined, including a roughly 50 percent drop just in the last year. Yet the final designation of “threatened” rather than “endangered” creates an exemption allowing continued oil and gas drilling and other destructive activities in exchange for promised action under voluntary conservation plans that are virtually unenforceable.
“The lesser prairie chicken is endangered, period.” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Yet instead of protecting the bird from serious threats, the Service exempts anyone who signs on to entirely voluntary state or local conservation plans, undermining the very purpose of protecting imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act.”
“The population of lesser prairie chickens plunged by half to only 17,000 birds last year” said Jay Lininger, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an emergency situation that requires the strongest protections possible. Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned its back and relied on voluntary conservation plans that only amount to a wink and a nod with no accountability.”
The lesser prairie chicken is a large, ground-nesting bird that inhabits shortgrass prairies, sand sage grasslands, and shinnery oak shrubsteppe across eastern New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas and southeastern Colorado. Each spring, prairie chickens gather at traditional strutting or “booming” sites called “leks” where males display their colorful plumage, emit unique burbling mating calls and compete for the right to breed with females. These leks are the hub of nesting activity, which typically occurs in habitat within a mile of the lek site.
“Prairie chickens use their traditional leks and nesting habitats year after year, so it’s critically important to give these sensitive habitats the protection they need,” added Molvar. “The various state and local conservation agreements are completely voluntary, and allow habitat destruction to continue. They are no substitute for the enforceable protections of the Endangered Species Act.”
The Endangered Species Act is designed to recover imperiled species so they no longer require the Act’s protection. The Service’s efforts to appease industry undermine the very purpose of the ESA and allow the status quo to continue — likely necessitating long-term protection of the species under the Act.
“The sky will not fall if full protection of the Endangered Species Act applies to lesser prairie chickens,” Lininger said. “We owe it to future generations to ensure that this funny, charismatic bird can co-exist with economic development.”
The ESA is a proven effective safety net for imperiled species: More than 99 percent of plants and animals protected under the Act persist today. The Act is especially important as a bulwark against the current extinction crisis, during which plants and animals are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities. Scientists estimate that at least 227 species would have gone extinct were it not for the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.