Bird on the Brink

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Precipitous decline spells trouble for lesser prairie-chicken; protection needed now

They gather every spring on the southern Great Plains, the males displaying their colorful plumage to compete for the right to mate with a female and carry the species into the future. But with 84 percent of their grasslands habitat destroyed and their numbers plummeting, lesser prairie-chickens can no longer make it on their own.

As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in March decided to protect this rare grouse as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But after wait-listing the species for 15 years, this action is now too little, too late, say Defenders and the other conservation groups that legally challenged FWS’s decision in April. The groups want to see the bird listed as “endangered,” making protection mandatory.

Increasingly, FWS is evoking a special section of the ESA that allows habitat destruction and incidental “take,” or killing, of threatened species. For the lesser prairie-chicken, this means that participants in voluntary or state-organized “early conservation” plans can still harm the birds and the habitat they rely on to survive.

For example, under the new threatened listing, the oil and gas industry can kill about half the remaining population in the next 10 years. The bird’s numbers are already dangerously small, and drought and habitat destruction wiped out 50 percent of the birds last year, according to a report by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Active breeding grounds also suffered a 30 percent decline.

Besides energy development, other threats include livestock grazing, agricultural development, road-building and an ongoing multi-year drought.

“FWS has adopted unprecedented and sweeping loopholes that seriously undermine its ability to monitor the effectiveness of what we believe are already inadequate conservation programs,” says Jason Rylander, Defenders’ senior attorney.

Where once in the early 20th century a single market hunter killed and shipped 20,000 lesser prairie-chickens from a single Texas county, fewer than 18,000 birds existed last year throughout their entire range in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. In 2012, they numbered 34,440.

FWS’s goal is to increase the population to 67,000 birds in 10 years. But Rylander says this is highly unlikely because the state plans are inadequate and unenforceable, the habitat designated to the birds is a fraction of the size required to sustain breeding populations, and the population goal itself is insufficient to sustain the species.

“FWS is setting up a situation where drought or other natural disturbances could sufficiently compromise the birds’ ability to survive,” says Rylander. “This decision is a recipe for the extinction of a rare and beautiful bird already teetering on the brink.”

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