Read the original article by Chris Casteel at oklahoman.com here.
Nearly two years after the U.S. government dropped its effort to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, Oklahoma lawmakers are again pushing back against the prospect of federal protection for the bird.
U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford, both Oklahoma Republicans, penned a letter this month urging the Secretary of Interior to consider voluntary conservation measures before making a “rush to judgment” on listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
Referring to a five-state, voluntary range plan that includes oil and gas companies, utilities, farmers and other private landowners, the lawmakers said in the letter that “it is imperative that you provide the fullest and fairest opportunity for such private conservation plans to succeed.”
Some fear that listing the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species could curtail energy and agricultural activities within the bird’s habitat, which includes parts of western Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The range plan was designed to accommodate the bird and industry.
A report released in March by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimated the bird’s population at 38,637, an increase of 29% from the previous year.
The report says the population has been trending upward since the range plan was implemented about five years ago.
The Oklahoma senators’ letter, also signed by U.S. senators from Kansas, Colorado and Texas, says more than 7 million acres have been enrolled in the conservation plan by the private sector.
However, three environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in June aimed at pushing the Trump administration to evaluate the lesser prairie chicken, a member of the grouse family, for federal protection.
The lawsuit claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have completed a study already.
The lawsuit states, “The species once numbered around a million birds, but today there are fewer than 38,000 lesser prairie chickens remaining. Conversion to agriculture, the introduction of cattle, and the construction of roads, pipelines, powerlines, and drilling pads to support the oil and gas industry have fragmented the bird’s preferred habitat, separated individuals from lek (courtship) sites, and driven a sharp reduction in numbers.”
Jason Rylander, senior counsel at Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, said last month, “The iconic lesser prairie chicken could go extinct if we do not take meaningful steps to save it.
“Endangered Species Act protection could make all the difference, but the Trump administration refuses to act. The lesser prairie chicken has waited long enough for a decision.”
Inhofe praises five-state plan
The struggle over the lesser prairie chicken predates the Trump administration by many years. It goes back to the 1990s. It wasn’t until the Obama administration that the bird’s status was enough of a priority to merit a designation under the Endangered Species Act.
The voluntary range plan was developed while the Obama administration considered listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened or endangered. Inhofe worked with private companies and wildlife officials from several states to develop the voluntary conservation plan to avoid the federal listing.
Inhofe said this week that the Obama effort was “rushed” and “purely political.”
“I fought them at every turn, and, in 2016 the courts recognized that the local efforts were ignored in favor of federal overreach and delisted the lesser prairie chicken,” Inhofe said.
“Since then, the five-state plan has been successful and we’ve seen population growth of over 50% across the species’ range.”
Inhofe was referring to a federal judge’s ruling in 2016 that the Fish and Wildlife Service had not adequately considered the voluntary range plan when it listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened. The judge’s ruling effectively delisted the bird, and the Obama administration declined to pursue further action.
Defenders of Wildlife and other groups petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 to restart the process. In its initial response, the service said listing the bird as endangered might be justified.
The lawsuit filed last month by the environmental groups contends the service has exceeded the 12-month limit for making a determination.
In a statement to The Oklahoman, the Fish and Wildlife Service said this week that it will make its 12-month finding regarding the lesser prairie chicken in fiscal year 2021.
The timetable factors in “numerous conservation plans in development with representatives from the agriculture, wind energy, and oil and gas energy sectors,” the service stated.
“When evaluating the status of the LPC, the Service will use the best available information to characterize the current and future condition of the LPC, taking into account both threats and conservation efforts.
“We are currently working with our partners to ensure there are viable conservation options in place for the lesser prairie chicken.”
Inhofe said he has been working with the Trump administration “and will keep the pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure that they follow the law by putting voluntary conservation efforts first.”
Congress included a provision in the Interior Department spending bill last year, Inhofe said, requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service “to prioritize voluntary state and local conservation over a federal listing” under the Endangered Species Act.
The environmental groups suing the Trump administration say the lesser prairie chicken is also endangered by climate change.
“Overall, global warming is expected to drive a four-fold increase in the number of 100-plus degree days on the Southern Plains,” the groups said. “A 2017 U.S. Geological Survey study found that lesser prairie chickens will move closer to extinction as climate change worsens and more habitat is lost.”
Jacob Malcolm, with Defenders of Wildlife, said the population increase was driven by a temporary rise in precipitation. The Range Wide Plan didn’t increase the amount of habitat significantly — rather, the enrolled acreage is habitat that hasn’t been lost, Malcolm said.