State wildlife agencies in Colorado, Kansas, New
Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
and other federal agencies have joined in a conservation initiative
on the southern High Plains to encourage land owners, agricultural
organizations, and conservation groups in actions to benefit the
lesser prairie-chicken and other declining wildlife species in
In August 1996, five state wildlife agencies formed
the Lesser prairie-chicken Interstate Working Group to develop
a regionwide conservation strategy for this species. The group
is also working with the Great Plains Partnership of the Western
Governors' Association, which recently applied for a $415,000
grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help fund
an initiative called the High Plains Partnership for Species
The initiative will first identify measures that
will benefit the lesser prairie-chicken, a bird of sand-sage prairies
and shinnery-oak habitats on the High Plains, and promote voluntary
participation in projects that restore habitat for the species.
Conservation measures will include a series of demonstration projects
in lesser prairie-chicken range, technical and financial assistance
to landowners for habitat restoration and improvement projects,
and research into the relationship between lesser prairie-chicken
habitat needs and range management practices.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is very excited
about the commitment of the States to the lesser prairie-chicken
working group and the potential for the Great Plains Partnership
to assist in conservation efforts," said Jerry Brabander,
Field Supervisor for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oklahoma.
"I am confident that by working together and respecting the
needs of all parties, we can turn the tide of the lesser prairie-chicken
Lesser prairie-chicken populations on the southern High Plains have declined sharply in the last 100 years. Although absolute numbers of birds are difficult to determine, virtually all surveys of the species' population show declines, with some studies estimating reductions in excess of 90 percent.
Large-scale conversion of native prairie to cultivated
cropland, combined with extensive drought, caused a serious decline
in lesser prairie-chickens in the early part of this century.
Populations recovered somewhat after the 1930s, but in more recent
years conversion to irrigated cropland and overgrazing of rangeland
have contributed to the long-term decline. Other factors, such
as the influence of increasingly smaller patches of suitable habitat,
predation, and disease, may also be affecting the species' status.
In October 1995, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation
of Boulder, Colorado, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
to list the species as "threatened" under the Endangered
Species Act (ESA). The Service is normally required to issue an
initial finding on a petition within 90 days, but the process
was put on hold when funding to the Service for review of petitions
and other listing actions was substantially reduced in Federal
fiscal year 1996.
When funding was restored in April 1996, the Service
established a priority system for listing actions under the ESA.
The guidance identified completion of emergency listing actions
and final decisions on proposed listings as priorities above petition
findings. An initial petition finding, such as the one in question
for the lesser prairie-chicken, will state only whether or not
the petition contains substantial information to indicate that
the listing may be warranted; the initial finding will not contain a
final listing decision. A final date for the initial finding on
the prairie chicken has not yet been set. On December 23, 1996,
the Biodiversity Legal Foundation filed suit over the Service's
failure to issue that finding.
The Western Governors' Association supports cooperative
efforts like the Lesser prairie-chicken Interstate Working Group,
which will encourage local citizens and communities to develop
plans addressing endangered species issues and concerns. In 1991,
the Western Governors' Association initiated the Great Plains
Partnership to encourage voluntary, incentive driven efforts at
the state and local levels to address sensitive species and habitats
prior to their becoming listed as endangered or threatened.
"Society and communities on the High Plains
will benefit from inclusive efforts like the lesser prairie-chicken
partnership," said Jim Schwartz, project coordinator for
the Great Plains Partnership. "These are the projects in
which you can see successful improvements on the land with numerous
benefits to sensitive species and habitat while maintaining sustainable
In working with landowners and other stakeholders,
the High Plains Partnership will begin the process of devising
solutions to declining wildlife populations in this region. For
more information on the initiatives under way, write U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, 222 S. Houston, Suite A, Tulsa, OK 74127.
Photos of the lesser prairie-chicken can be obtained from Erich
Langer 918-581-7458 ext. 225.
The greatest numbers of lesser prairie-chickens occurred before
large scale conversion of native rangeland to cropland began.
Records indicate that there may have been as many as two million
lesser prairie-chickens in Texas alone prior to 1900. Serious
declines in numbers occurred prior to and during the dustbowl
days of the 1930's, coincident with the establishment of large
areas of cultivated farmland and intensive grazing of grasslands.
When rain returned, lesser prairie-chicken numbers began to recover
slowly. In more recent years, loss of native sand-sage and shinnery
oak prairie habitat has occurred due to conversion to irrigated
cropland and range management practices that have resulted in
alteration of native vegetation. This loss has also influenced
the long-term population decline of the lesser prairie-chicken.
In 1980, researchers estimated that the occupied range of the
lesser prairie-chicken had decreased 92% since the 1800's.
Lesser prairie-chicken populations are dependent upon range conditions.
Sand-sage prairie, with its mixture of short and mid-grasses,
sagebrush, and yucca, provides nesting and brood-rearing cover
and food2. In other areas, shinnery oak stands provide
the necessary cover component. Results of overgrazing on lesser
prairie-chicken habitat include the marked decrease of desireable
food plants and the destruction and modification of nesting and
escape cover.1 In addition, large scale chemical brush
control may eliminate desirable native food plants. As native
rangeland becomes predominately a grassland, prairie-chicken feeding
areas are reduced or eliminated.1
What happens if the High Plains Partnership for Species
at Risk is not funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation?
The states will continue to work on the development and implementation
of a comprehensive conservation strategy for the lesser prairie-chicken
regardless of the funding of the High Plains Partnership
initiative. While funding of that initiative will allow on-the-ground
conservation actions and establishment of demonstration areas
to begin immediately, the states still plan to continue their
work towards a regional plan for reversing the declining trend
in this species even without funding of this proposal.
How does the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fit into the
habitat needs of the lesser prairie-chicken and other upland wildlife
species of the southern Great Plains?
The implementation of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has
the potential to greatly benefit species such as the lesser prairie-chicken.
The lesser prairie-chicken is a species that requires an interspersion
of habitat components such as mid-height or tall grasses for nesting
cover, brush such as sand-sage or shinnery oak for cover and food,
and short-grass areas for the establishment of leks. The reestablishment
of marginal cropland areas to native warm-season grasses and forbs
may benefit prairie-chickens by providing nesting cover and food
sources. Areas adjacent to existing prairie-chicken populations
planted with native grass mixtures will contribute the most to
lesser prairie-chicken population needs. CRP lands established
to introduced grass species, however, leave little value for the
lesser prairie-chicken or other wildlife species.
When does the Service plan to issue the initial finding on
the petition to list the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened?
In accordance with the Endangered Species Act, the Service is
normally required to issue an initial finding on a petition within
90 days. However, the process was held up last year when funding
to the Service for review of petitions and other listing actions
was substantially reduced. On December 5, 1996, the Service released
final guidance for assigning relative priorities to the backlog
of listing actions such as petition reviews (see 61 FR 64475).
According to that guidance, review of petitions that were not
assigned "emergency listing" status are considered Tier
3 actions. Tier 3 actions are being processed by Service Regional
offices upon the completion of Tier 1 and 2 actions. The Service
expects each Regional Office to begin processing Tier 3 petition
findings no later than April 1, 1997.
What effect will the Biodiversity Legal Foundation's suit have
on the petition process?
The suit filed by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation on December
23, 1996, alleges that the Service has failed to meet the timeframe
mandated under the Endangered Species Act for initial reviews
of petitions (90 days). The effect of this suit on the listing
process in this case is unknown.
The Service believes that the published listing priority guidelines maximize the conservation benefit to the most imperiled species and will allow the agency to soon return to implementing its responsibilities to all species in a timely manner. The Service is working with the Interior Solicitors Office and the Justice Department on matters under active litigation to request that appropriate relief be sought from the district courts to allow those species with highest biological priority to be addressed first.
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