After more than two decades of appeals from conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday announced protections for the lesser prairie chicken, a flamboyant, stocky bird that once covered the American prairies in the hundreds of thousands but whose population has since shrunk to about 30,000.
Two populations of chickens, which are a type of grouse, will be listed under the Endangered Species Act, giving the species federal protection when the rule takes effect in January, the agency said. wildlife in a press release.
The northern bird population – which is distributed across the prairies of central and western Kansas, central Oklahoma and the northeast panhandle of Texas – has been designated as “threatened”.
This status is less urgent than “endangered,” but it will essentially grant chickens in the northern population the same protections that make up the southern population of eastern New Mexico and southwestern Texas. , where the chickens have been designated as “endangered” because officials determined the birds had less habitat in those areas, officials said.
“The decline of the little prairie chicken is a sign that our native grasslands and grasslands are at risk,” Amy Lueders, the agency’s southwest regional director, said in a statement.
She added that the agency would work with all stakeholders to ensure the protections run smoothly.
The fate of little prairie chickens has long been tied to lawsuits from oil and gas producers. The companies have long claimed that federal protections for small prairie chickens would curb oil production, with the law limiting where an oil rig can be placed if officials determine it could result in further loss of oil. habitat for birds.
Since 1995, conservationists have told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that quick action is needed to slow the loss of these beloved, showy little birds known for their elaborate courtship ritual. Each spring, during mating season, the males stamp their feet against the ground and inflate the bright orange air sacs around their necks, making a macabre noise that echoes across the dry grass, sometimes up to half a mile away.
In 2014, the US government listed the species as endangered, which meant the species was at risk of extinction for the foreseeable future. But oil and gas companies and some Republican lawmakers criticized the move as an attack on energy and agricultural producers. Environmental groups had different concerns with the agency, saying at the time that the chickens should instead be listed as endangered.
The Permian Basin Petroleum Association sued the government in 2014, saying the agency was disregarding voluntary conservation efforts in the area. A U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Texas later ruled in favor of the association, ending possible protection for the chickens.
In 2016, a new official petition was filed by conservation groups asking, once again, that chickens be protected by the federal government. The Trump administration, however, weakened the Endangered Species Act and blocked progress on this petition.
The agency assured oil and gas companies, renewable energy developers, ranchers and agricultural workers that it would work to ensure their operations continued.
Clay Nichols, the small prairie chicken coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview Thursday that while some opponents of the measure might believe that 21 million acres of land will now be off-limits to energy production, the assumption was not true.
Only four million acres are estimated to be suitable habitat for the little prairie chicken, and within those acres many industries are already signed up to conservation agreements and will be allowed to continue operating, Nichols said.
He added that “there is not much overlap” between where the birds live and where the oil development is taking place: more than 90% of the development in the Permian Basin is well to the south. of the small range of prairie chickens.
The law will primarily prevent new activities that would result in habitat loss, Mr. Nichols said.
Still, oil and gas companies have said the protections are unnecessary.
Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association in Texas, said in a statement that Thursday’s decision was “reckless and irresponsible.”
“Oil and gas companies have invested significant resources and participated in conservation agreements in which tens of thousands of acres of habitat have been listed and tens of millions of dollars have been spent to protect the species,” Mr Shepperd said.
Senators Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran, both Kansas Republicans, condemned the agency’s decision Thursday in a joint statement, saying the decision would hurt the economy.
Conservationists, however, say the health of the little prairie chickens is indicative of the overall health of the nation’s grasslands, which are economically and culturally important to the Great Plains.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said by phone Thursday that energy companies, including those that operate wind turbines, have accelerated habitat losses for chickens, particularly in Texas and Oklahoma.
“These little groups of little prairie chickens that can no longer interact with other groups – one by one the populations are getting weaker and dying out,” Robinson said. “And that’s a recipe for extinction.”