U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Press Release


January 23, 1997

Erich Langer 918/581-7458 ext. 225
Noreen Walsh 918/581-7458 ext. 229
Dan Mulhern 913/539-3474 ext 16


Lesser Prairie-chicken, Other Wildlife to Benefit

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 the region.

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 at Risk.

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 decline."

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 human communities."

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.

Question and Answers about the Lesser Prairie-chicken

What has caused the decline in the lesser prairie-chicken?

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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