Big step forward in WildEarth Guardians’ decades-long battle to protect imperiled species
WASHINGTON—Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the “Service”) announced its proposal to provide Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections to the lesser prairie-chicken, a charismatic grassland bird that now occupies approximately 15% of its historic range. The Service’s proposed rule was submitted as the result of a settlement agreement between the federal government and WildEarth Guardians and partner organizations finalized in 2019, following failure to act on a 2016 listing petition.
The proposed rule includes listing the lesser prairie-chicken in two distinct population segments (“DPS”), with the Northern DPS—encompassing Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma—proposed to be listed as “threatened” and the Southern DPS—consisting of birds in New Mexico and Texas—proposed to be listed as “endangered.” All populations face severe threats of habitat loss and fragmentation caused by oil and gas development, cropland conversion, livestock grazing, roads, and power lines.
“WildEarth Guardians has been fighting for more than two decades to get ESA protections for the lesser prairie-chicken and we are encouraged that the Service has finally recognized the need for federal listing status,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. “For far too long, this iconic dancing bird has seen its numbers dwindling towards extinction and we are hopeful this is the first step towards rebuilding populations and preserving habitat.”
Federal listing petitions for the lesser prairie-chicken date back to the mid 1990s. For two decades, voluntary state agreements were relied upon to protect the species in lieu of federal government protections. In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened. But protection was overturned on procedural grounds after a lawsuit from the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and four counties.
“The lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat have been absolutely trashed by unchecked oil and gas extraction,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians. “This proposed rule means that the ESA finally stands to provide the safety net desperately needed to protect the lesser prairie-chicken in the face of rampant fracking in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico and west Texas.”
The lesser prairie chicken—an icon of the Southern Plains—once numbered in the millions but has declined to just roughly 38,000 birds across less than 17 percent of its original range. Experts estimate the population of lesser prairie chickens at 3 million birds before the beginning of Euro-American settlement on the Great Plains.
The Service will be accepting comments on the proposed rule for 60 days once the proposal is published in the Federal Register before issuing a final decision.