The U.S. government announced Thursday protections for two populations of a rare prairie bird found in parts of the Midwest, including one of the country’s most productive oil and gas fields.
The lesser prairie chicken’s range includes part of the oil-rich Permian Basin along the New Mexico-Texas state line and extends into parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The bird’s habitat, a species of grouse, has been reduced over about 90% of its historical range, officials said.
“The decline of the prairie chicken is a sign that our native grasslands and prairies are under threat,” said Amy Lueders, Southwest regional director at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The crow-sized landbirds are known for springtime courtship rituals that involve extravagant dances by the males while they make a cacophony of cackling, cackling and booming noises. They were once thought to number in the millions, but now, surveys show, the five-year average population across the range is about 30,000.
Environmentalists have been striving for greater federal protection for decades. They consider the species critically endangered due to oil and gas exploration, cattle grazing, agriculture, and construction of roads and power lines.
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Republicans in Congress said no greater protections were needed and the government should instead rely on voluntary protection efforts already in place. Kansas’ newly elected Republican attorney general vowed to challenge the Fish and Wild Life Service’s decision in court once he takes office in January.
The decision affects the grouse’s southern population of New Mexico and the southern reaches of the Texas Panhandle, where they are listed as vulnerable, and their northern range, where they have been given less severe “Vulnerable” status. The regulation will come into effect at the end of January.
Landowners and the oil and gas industry say they’re having success with voluntary conservation programs aimed at protecting habitat and increasing bird numbers.
However, population estimates show that the southern areas have lower resilience and there may be as few as 5,000 birds left, with estimates falling to just 1,000 after drought conditions in 2015 and 2022, officials said.
The federal government listed the bird as a threatened species in 2014, but was forced to revert that two years later after court rulings found that the agency had failed to give adequate consideration to voluntary conservation efforts.
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Landowners and oil companies already participating in such programs will not be affected by Thursday’s decision as they have taken steps to protect habitat, officials said. It prevents activities that result in the loss or degradation of existing habitats.
More than 9,375 square miles were covered by conservation treaties last spring.
“In its final rule, the US Fish and Wildlife Service first commended landowners’ voluntary efforts to increase Kansas’ lower populations of prairie chickens and then unilaterally decided that the federal government is better equipped to address these local areas,” he said Republican Representative from Kansas. Tracey Mann of Kansas said in a statement.
A 2014 Kansas law states that the state has sole authority to regulate the species — along with the larger, darker, and more common prairie chickens — and their habitats within state lines. It empowers the attorney general or district attorneys to sue any federal attempt to enforce conservation measures.
Kansas Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach — a strong supporter of the 2014 law when it went into effect — had predicted during his campaign this year that President Joe Biden’s administration would take action against the smaller prairie chicken, saying that his move the build-up of wind “seriously affected”. manages and drives oil and natural gas production “to the brink of extinction”.
“What a surprise that they waited until after the election to announce this move!” Kobach said in a statement. “As Attorney General, I will fight this wrongdoing in court.”
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Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said conservation efforts for the animals were “great” but came too late for prairie chickens in some areas. Robinson’s group sued the government last month for being five months late in publishing a final decision. The first application to protect the bird was made in 1995.
“We wish the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection by 27 years,” said Robinson, “because acting more quickly would have meant there were many, many more places with far fewer live prairie chickens today.”