The listing of the smaller prairie chickens reflects the “ecosystem problem” in parts of New Mexico, Colorado

Two distinct populations of a rare prairie bird living in parts of Mountain West were listed under the Endangered Species Act by the US Fish and Wildlife Service this week.

The smaller prairie chicken’s range spans five states, including Colorado and New Mexico. There used to be hundreds of thousands of them in 100 million acres, according to FWS. Now aerial photographs taken by the agency over the past decade show only about 32,000 remain.

“If you look at the threats that the species are facing, the ongoing conservation efforts, the availability of habitat and the population trends, all together, and that gives you an overview of what the status of the species is now or what the status of the species is could evolve biologically,” said Clay Nichols, principal biologist for smaller prairie chickens at FWS.

The agency listed the northern population, which includes parts of southeastern Colorado, as threatened, meaning the birds will likely be endangered in the foreseeable future. It listed the southern population, which includes parts of oil-rich eastern New Mexico, as vulnerable, meaning they are in danger of extinction.

    The smaller prairie chicken's range spans five states, including Colorado and New Mexico.
The smaller prairie chicken’s range spans five states, including Colorado and New Mexico.

“An event, whether it’s man-made or a stochastic event, can push the species over the edge and into extinction,” Nichols said.

The main concern for the species is habitat loss as 90% of its habitable land has already been reduced by human activities such as oil and gas drilling or cattle grazing.

According to Nichols, the smaller prairie chicken is an indicator of the degradation of the region’s native grasslands and prairies – “a symptom of what’s going on with the health of the ecosystem there.”

“After that there will be another species, and then another, and then another,” he said, “because there are hundreds of grassland birds that depend on the same ecosystem. So we have an ecosystem problem.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has pushed the FWS to protect the smaller prairie chicken since 1995, and last month the organization sued the agency because the EWS’ final rule for the species was five months overdue.

“We wish the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection by 27 years because acting more quickly would have meant there were many more places with many less live prairie chickens today,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in a press release. “We will be closely monitoring the next steps to ensure there are also strong protections in place for the wild places where these birds live.”

The listings come into force two months after publication in the Federal Register.

The bird joins many other species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Only in Colorado do they exist more than 40 on the list.

This story was produced by Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliated stations throughout the region. The Mountain West News Bureau is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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