Three conservation groups filed a legal challenge today over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to adequately protect thousands of imperiled lesser prairie chickens from being killed or harmed by oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activities. Although the bird’s population declined an estimated 50 percent last year, in April the Service designated the bird as “threatened” rather than “endangered,” a distinction that allowed the agency to authorize ongoing “incidental take” of prairie chickens under a series of unproven, voluntary conservation agreements.
“Habitat destruction and drought are continuing to devastate the small remaining population of this magnificent grassland bird,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These unenforceable pro-industry agreements fail to ensure the level of protection required by the Endangered Species Act to avert extinction.”
Listing a species as merely “threatened” allows application of a provision of the Endangered Species Act known as “4(d)” that the Service interprets as allowing special exemptions for purported conservation agreements. The lawsuit challenges the special exemptions for the lesser prairie chicken, which sanction the continued destruction of the bird’s habitat through voluntary agreements that lack necessary enforcement mechanisms to save the bird from extinction.
“This iconic grassland bird deserves more than a hollow promise of protection,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “These agreements are far from foolproof and even the Service admits that they don’t know for certain how the agreements will impact the prairie-chicken.”
According to broad federal estimates, habitat-destroying activities by parties that voluntarily enroll in the conservation agreements authorized by the 4(d) rule will be permitted to “incidentally take” more than 1,300 of the only 17,616 remaining prairie chickens every year. With a prairie chicken population already crashing in the face of drought and rampant destruction of habitat by the oil and gas industry, the decision to allow ongoing “take” of the birds threatens the species’ survival. “Incidental take” includes activities that harm, harass or kill species.
“Voluntary unenforceable conservation efforts are a recipe for extinction,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The states’ bungling of lesser prairie chicken conservation and their failure to impose the necessary habitat protections are responsible for the extreme lesser prairie chicken declines. An ‘endangered’ listing is needed immediately to close the loopholes, and inject the necessary backbone into conservation efforts.”
“The Endangered Species Act works. It’s prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species under its protection,” said Lininger. “Making special exceptions that allow ongoing destruction of the bird’s habitat by the very industries that have pushed it to the brink of extinction doesn’t pass the legal test, or the smell test.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., by Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, argues that the serious threat of extinction of the prairie chicken across its entire range warrants a listing of endangered, rather than threatened.
Unlike for “endangered” listings, the Service has the authority to create exemptions called “4(d)” rules for species listed as ‘threatened.’ These rules are supposed to provide for the conservation of the species. However, the 4(d) rule for the lesser prairie-chicken prevents conservation by authorizing existing threats to the species to continue under Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas’ range-wide plan, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s programs, and a special exemption for certain agricultural operations.
Among its many problems, the states’ plan sets a low 10-year population goal of only 67,000 birds, which may not be sufficient for the prairie chicken to survive drought, climate change and natural and man-made disturbances. The “focal areas” of habitat designated by the plan are far too small to sustain adequate breeding populations.
Overall, the 4(d) rule offers little hope that voluntary enrollment in prairie chicken plans will actually mitigate impacts to the birds or recover the species from the brink of extinction.
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.