Precipitous decline in one year spells trouble for struggling species awaiting listing decision
WASHINGTON (September 25, 2013) – The lesser prairie-chicken, one of the country’s iconic grasslands birds, has suffered a sharp decline in population numbers over the past year, according to a report released by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). The report comes on the heels of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s July announcement of a six-month delay on a decision to list the imperiled bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The following is a statement from Timothy Male, Vice President of Conservation Science and Policy for Defenders of Wildlife:
“The plummeting population of the prairie-chicken adds new urgency to a listing decision now more than a dozen years overdue.
“These birds are struggling to survive in the face of accelerating habitat loss, a dangerously small population size, more frequent droughts and fragmented distribution range-wide. Without ESA protection, this quadruple threat will continue to jeopardize the species’ survival, and the recent sharp decline in numbers is a clear indicator that the time is running out for the prairie-chicken.
“Under the ESA, we can provide the prairie-chicken the protection it needs while recognizing and rewarding effective conservation efforts by landowners and land users. But after this latest devastating report, there can be no further claim to scientific uncertainty about the status of the species – the Service must act and list the prairie-chicken.”
The lesser prairie-chicken is a relatively small, brown-and-white-striped western grouse. They are ground-nesting birds that occur in grasslands in limited areas in five states in the southern Great Plains.
In 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing the species under the Endangered Species Act was warranted and, ten years later, assigned it a listing priority number of two out of 12 (the highest possible rank for the species). Ongoing threats include habitat loss from the conversion of native rangelands to cropland, energy development, fire suppression, drought, the use of herbicides to destroy shinnery oak habitat, and continued habitat fragmentation due to land development and roadbuilding.
Despite conservation efforts by states, USDA and others in partnership with ranchers and farmers, the species has continued to decline. In July 2013 the Service extended finalizing a proposed ESA listing determination for six months. If the Service lists the prairie chicken as a threatened species, the agency has broad authority to limit or avoid the application of additional regulatory restrictions to landowners operating under credible and effective science-based candidate conservation agreements with assurances (CCAAs). A number of conservation efforts (CCAAs, mitigation banking, USDA conservation projects and a rangewide conservation plan) are now in development or underway. Done right, all of them may be very helpful in eventually turning around the decline of the bird.
Contact: Courtney Sexton, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-0253; email@example.com 
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org  and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews .