We have determined that the lesser prairie-chicken warrants listing as a threatened species.
A “threatened” listing means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. It allows us to ensure the bird’s protection while providing some measure of flexibility in implementing measures under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ongoing drought and past habitat loss and fragmentation throughout the chicken’s range of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have devastated the species – the 2013 estimate had the population at 17,616 birds, almost 50 percent fewer than 2012.
We first identified the lesser prairie-chicken as a candidate for federal protection under the ESA in 1998, and since then, have worked with the states, federal agencies, conservation organizations, landowners and other partners to protect the species’ habitat and address the threats it faces.
For instance, state wildlife agency experts, working through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and with a wide variety of stakeholders, have developed a range-wide conservation plan for the prairie-chicken. That plan has a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has also developed the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.
Oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have already signed up more than 3 million acres of lands to participate in these conservation plans. That’s a huge step forward for the conservation of the prairie-chicken and its grassland habitat.
Most recently, we’ve signed a range-wide Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for oil and gas developers that uses the flexibility of the ESA to advance conservation objectives for the lesser prairie-chicken while considering the economic needs of the nation.
We’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m extremely encouraged by the protections that have been put in place. They will pay enormous dividends in the future.
We all knew going in that it would be difficult to address the threats facing the prairie chicken on a scale large enough to prevent listing.
Despite this, every partner worked extremely hard to make a difference. In that regard, the work we’ve put in together is a victory for conservation even though listing is still necessary. That’s why in addition to the threatened listing, we are adopting a special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that recognizes these efforts.
The five range states have shown tremendous leadership in prairie-chicken conservation, so the special rule will allow them to maintain leadership in the management of the species.
The rule says participating landowners and developers who adhere to the existing conservation agreements they signed will not be required to undertake any additional conservation measures now the prairie-chicken is listed.
In addition, landowners who have not signed conservation agreements will be exempt from the take prohibitions of the ESA when undertaking normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land, and do not need to take additional action.
Landowners without existing conservation agreements who plan to undertake actions not covered under the special 4(d) rule that may kill or injure the lesser prairie-chicken or cause significant habitat modifications may require a permit from the Service.
The lesser prairie-chicken is a species that is clearly in trouble and warrants listing under the ESA.
But I want to commend the partnership efforts and leadership role taken by the states in developing and implementing their range-wide conservation plan.
We look forward to getting behind that state-led model for conservation and helping them recover this emblematic prairie species.