Three conservation groups today announced a legal challenge to force full protection of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act. The move comes in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last week to protect the highly imperiled bird only as “threatened” while providing special exemptions that would allow ongoing destruction of the birds and their dwindling grassland habitat.
The Service has increasingly relied on Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act to create exemptions that allow continued habitat destruction and the incidental take of species listed as “threatened,” weakening protections. The special exemptions for the lesser prairie-chicken allow participants in a state organized conservation plan or other voluntary plans, to kill lesser prairie-chickens and destroy their habitat.
“Drought and habitat destruction are devastating the small remaining population of this magnificent grassland bird,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The unenforceable state-level plan and voluntary measures are too little, too late, and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction. The lesser prairie-chicken needs the full protection of the Endangered Species Act to stem the tide of habitat destruction.”
Under an agreement endorsed by the Service last month, the oil and gas industry alone is authorized over 10 years to kill the equivalent of just under half of the remaining chicken population, which dropped to fewer than 18,000 birds last year. The state-level conservation plan is inadequate to prevent extinction for three reasons:
· It sets a low 10-year population goal of only 67,000 birds that will not be sufficiently resilient to drought conditions and natural disturbances;
· It designates “focal areas” of habitat that are a fraction of the size required to sustain adequate breeding populations;
· It offers no reasonable expectation of enforcement to ensure survival and recovery or lesser prairie chicken.
Along with challenging the inadequacies of the so-called “4(d) rule” and associated state and private conservation agreements, the groups are challenging the decision to protect the bird only as “threatened” rather than “endangered.” An endangered designation would have made conservation protections mandatory rather than optional.
“This decision is a recipe for further declines of a rare and beautiful bird already teetering on the brink of extinction. The Service has adopted unprecedented and sweeping loopholes that seriously undermine their ability to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of new and inadequate conservation programs, increasing the likelihood of further loss of prairie-chickens and further habitat destruction,” said Jason Rylander, Senior Attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “It is simply unreasonable to expect that these untested and inadequate conservation agreements could come close to recovering the lesser prairie-chicken, which declined by 50 percent in just the last year. The fact that the Service said in their press release on the 4(d) rule that they ‘expect’ the agreements to benefit the species demonstrates that even they don’t know for certain how the agreements will impact the prairie-chicken.”
“In 1905, one market hunter shipped 20,000 lesser prairie-chickens out of a single county in Texas,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “In 2013, only 17,616 were found across the species’ entire five-state range, down from 34,440 just the year before, and counts appear to be even lower this spring. Clearly, the local efforts aren’t enough to recover the bird and protect its most sensitive habitats, and compelling a full-scale ‘endangered species’ listing would close the loopholes and inject some much-needed backbone into conservation efforts.”
A study released last year by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimates the total population size at 17,616 individuals in 2013, almost a 50 percent drop from the 2012 estimate of 34,440 birds. The study also estimated there to be only 2,036 occupied breeding areas (known as leks) in 2013 — a decline of more than 30 percent from the 2012 estimate of 2,930 leks.
The lesser prairie-chicken is a medium-sized, 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.