ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Interior proposes 'threatened' listing for bird with habitat coveted by energy developers

The Interior Department today proposed Endangered Species Act protection for the lesser prairie chicken, a grayish-brown grouse whose native grasslands and prairie habitat in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas has declined by about 84 percent.

The proposed "threatened" listing is "a call for action" for states, landowners, ranchers and energy companies to work together to conserve its habitat, said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

Agency scientists today warned that the iconic bird is likely to be in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future. It is threatened by grazing, tree encroachment, conversion of rangeland to crop and non-native forage, and energy development.

The plight of the colorful bird is a sign that the broader prairie ecosystem "is in trouble," Ashe said.

"I think we've made a lot of progress, and I'm extremely encouraged by the protections that have been put in place," Ashe told reporters today in a teleconference. But additional conservation measures are needed, he warned.

A final listing could be averted, he said, but time is running short. The agency said it intends to issue a final decision by the end of next September, as called for in a legal settlement it struck last year with environmental groups. Today's announcement will trigger a lengthy and transparent public process, Ashe said.

The listing is opposed by Republican lawmakers and energy groups, which have warned federal protections will crimp oil and gas development, wind farms and transmission projects.

A group of 21 lawmakers, most of them Republican, in July argued that voluntary conservation efforts over the past decade have totaled almost $50 million and covered 2.7 million acres, nullifying the need for federal protections (E&E Daily, July 18).

"Today's action is the latest example of the consequences of the Obama administration's 'sue and settle' strategy, in which the administration and special-interest groups negotiate friendly settlements that give both parties what they want," said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the industry-backed Institute for Energy Research. "The full extent of this particular listing on domestic energy production is yet unknown, but it cannot be positive."

But environmentalists said the prairie chicken's decline reflects broader concerns over the health of the southern Great Plains. Without federal protections, the bird could disappear.

"Listing cannot come soon enough for the lesser prairie chicken," said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. "Threats are increasing, the species' range is contracting, and current conservation efforts are too little, too late to conserve the species."

A threatened listing -- which is functionally the same as an endangered listing -- makes it illegal to harm or kill a species. Federal agencies that permit or fund projects that could harm the bird would need to consult with FWS to ensure they would not jeopardize its survival.

While New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have stopped the hunting of lesser prairie chickens, a threatened listing would presumably force Kansas to cancel its hunting season. The species is listed as threatened by the state of Colorado.

Stakeholders are hopeful that the bird could follow the path of the dunes sagebrush lizard, which narrowly averted an endangered listing in June after scores of federal, state and private landowners agreed to voluntarily conserve and enhance its shinnery oak dune habitat.

But Ashe today warned that the prairie chicken is different from the lizard. It lives across a much larger area and responds differently to development pressures.

Complicating matters, roughly 95 percent of the prairie chicken's habitat is privately owned, meaning voluntary actions of landowners, many of whom receive assistance from the Agriculture Department, will be crucial to strengthening the chicken's habitat.

The prairie chicken, which sports a bright yellow eye band and a bulbous air sac in males, has qualified for federal protections since 1998 but has remained a "candidate" species due to a lack of funding.

The agency in 2008 said threats were intensifying in the face of new wind developments and conversion of CRP lands -- lands farmers have agreed to keep wild -- into production.

"We know that these grasslands support not only dozens of native migratory bird and wildlife species, but also farmers, ranchers and local communities across the region," said Benjamin Tuggle, director of FWS's Southwest region.

A 90-day comment period will begin in the next couple of weeks. Public hearings will be held in February in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.