In a few months, a grouse known as the lesser prairie chicken will emerge from its West Texas winter hideaway. Males will do a loud and elaborate mating dance, delighting females — and birdwatchers.
But there is less dancing now because the chickens’ numbers have declined. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acting under the Endangered Species Act, will decide by the end of September whether to put the birds on its list of threatened species. Such a move could have serious repercussions for wind farms, as well as oil and gas drilling, conceivably halting activity in some areas. Those industries are fighting to keep them off the list.
“Clearly if there was some sort of moratorium on development, that would be catastrophic,” said Jeff Clark, executive director of the Wind Coalition, a regional advocacy group. He argues that wind power and prairie chickens can co-exist.
That view is not shared by some environmentalists. “The chicken is in serious trouble without protection of the Endangered Species Act,” said Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
About 1,800 to 2,000 lesser prairie chickens are believed to inhabit Texas, primarily in the Panhandle and West Texas, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It is difficult to quantify the decline in the population because of changing survey methods, biologists say.
Classifying the species as threatened would also have implications for Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico, where the birds live, too. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the land area inhabited by chickens has shrunk by 84 percent over the past century, as native grasslands have vanished.
Earlier this month Gov. Rick Perry and the governors of the other four states issued a joint statement opposing a listing.
The governors said efforts by states, industry and landowners to aid the chicken should “support a ‘not warranted’ listing decision” by the federal government.
Kansas still allows lesser prairie chickens to be hunted. Texas banned it in 2009.
Listing the bird as “threatened” would not be as onerous to industries as listing it as “endangered,” which is a stronger classification. But it could still limit where energy activities take place.
A key problem, biologists say, is that prairie chickens fear tall structures, where predators like hawks can perch and spot them. Wind turbines, transmission towers and drilling rigs are generally the tallest things on the plains.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a hearing next month in Lubbock on the chicken’s future, and the public can comment on the issue until March 11.
David Smith, an environmental lawyer with Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, said the Obama administration faces the challenge of deciding between two green priorities — endangered species and wind power.
“This is really one of the first times when they’re talking about listing a species that could have direct and significant impacts on the ability to deliver renewables,” he said.
The Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group, is working to create “habitat exchange” agreements, in which energy companies pay landowners to preserve the lesser prairie chickens’ habitat. They should be ready by May, said David Festa, a vice president of the group. The development of similar exchanges helped keep a West Texas lizard off the endangered species list last year, to the immense relief of the oil and gas industry.
Regardless of the federal government’s decision on the chicken, a raft of other possible listings under the Endangered Species Act is imminent in Texas and nationwide. That is partly a result of lawsuits settled between the Fish and Wildlife Service and some environmental groups that want the government to act more quickly.
The oil and gas industry is monitoring the potential listing of more than 100 species, according to Debbra Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Among its top concerns will be the spot-tailed earless lizard, which inhabits the drilling grounds of the Eagle Ford Shale and is on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s study list.