The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that the lesser prairie chicken will be listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. The decision means special permission is required for economic development activity across the bird's prairie grassland habitat that spans five states — Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado — and violators could face penalties under federal law.
“We can’t ignore the mounting evidence that the prairie ecosystem which supports the chicken and so many other species and communities is in trouble," said Dan Ashe, the federal agency's director. He noted that the prairie chicken population is at an all-time low of fewer than 18,000 birds, according to the latest survey.
The decision disappointed officials in all five states where the bird roams. They had worked together on a conservation plan for the bird and hoped to avoid such a listing. But Ashe said that anyone participating in that plan — a list that includes agricultural landowners, oil and gas drillers, electric transmission companies, wind energy companies and others — would be exempt from the harsh penalties that the Endangered Species Act calls for if threatened animals are harmed. All such participants could hurt the prairie chicken by eradicating their grassland habitat and providing more tall structures for their predators to perch on, but they have agreed to either conserve existing grassland or pay into a fund if they will disturb habitat.
That exemption drew sharp criticism from wildlife advocacy groups, who said it riddled the listing decision with loopholes.
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"The problem with the recently completed conservation agreements for the prairie chicken is that they have no proven record of success," Jamie Clark, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based group Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. "They fail to provide adequate conservation measures and defer almost entirely to state wildlife agencies for the oversight and implementation of the agreements."
Indeed, Ashe stressed that "the states are in the driver's seat" when it comes to protecting the bird, and their goal of restoring its population to 67,000 from fewer than 18,000 today will be tough to meet. The bird's habitat stretches across 60 million acres, and so far companies are agreeing to participate in the plan when it comes to their operations on just over 5 percent of that land. But there are also other conservation programs for the bird, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, whose participants will be protected from liability under endangered species law.
Debate over how to save the bird and continue operating has divided the oil and gas industry as well as many Texas officials. While Texas Parks and Wildlife and Gov. Rick Perry's office support the conservation plan developed by the five states, Comptroller Susan Combs, whose office was given some oversight of endangered species issues in 2011, has spoken out against it. Combs supports a different approach to protecting the bird that the federal government is currently evaluating. That approach also has the support of Environmental Defense Fund and many of the biggest oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil.
Combs' office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.