Lesser Prairie Chickens Gain Protection Under U.S. Endangered Species Act

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After more than two decades of pleas 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 America’s grasslands in the hundreds of thousands but whose population has since dwindled to roughly 30,000.

Two populations of the chicken, which are a type of grouse, will be listed under the Endangered Species Act, providing the species federal protection when the rule takes effect in January, the wildlife agency said in a news release.

The birds’ northern population — which are spread across the grasslands of central and western Kansas, central Oklahoma and the northeast panhandle of Texas — were designated as “threatened.”

That status is less urgent than “endangered,” but it will essentially grant the northern population chickens the same protections as those that comprise the southern population in eastern New Mexico and Southwest Texas, where the chickens have been designated as “endangered” because officials determined the birds had less habitat in those parts, officials said.

“The lesser prairie chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril,” Amy Lueders, the agency’s southwest regional director, said in a statement.

She added that the agency would work with all stakeholders to ensure that the protections roll out smoothly.

The fate of the lesser prairie chickens has long been entangled with the pursuits of oil and gas producers. The companies have long claimed that federal protections for the lesser prairie chickens would curtail oil production, with the law limiting where an oil rig can be placed if officials were to determine that it could result in a further loss of habitat for the birds.

Since 1995, conservationists have told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that quick action was needed to slow the loss of the beloved, showy little birds known for their elaborate courtship ritual. Every spring during mating season, males drum their feet against the ground and inflate the bright orange air sacs at their necks, emitting a ghoulish noise that booms across the dry grass, sometimes as far as half a mile.

In 2014, the U.S. government listed the species as threatened, which meant the species was at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future. But oil and gas companies and some Republican legislators criticized the move as an attack against energy and agriculture producers. Environmental groups had different concerns with the agency, saying at the time that the chickens needed instead to be listed as endangered.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association sued the government in 2014, saying that the agency was not taking into account voluntary conservation efforts in the region. A U.S. district judge in the western district of Texas later ruled in the association’s favor, ending possible protection for the chickens.

In 2016, a new formal petition was filed by conservation groups asking, again, that the chickens be federally protected. The Trump administration, however, weakened the Endangered Species Act and stalled progress on that petition.

The agency assured oil and gas companies, renewable energy developers, ranchers and agricultural workers that it would work to ensure that their activities would continue.

Clay Nichols, the lesser prairie chicken coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview on 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 lesser prairie chicken, and in those acres, many industries are already enrolled in conservation agreements and will be allowed to continue operations, Mr. Nichols said.

He added that “there is not much overlap” between where the birds live and where oil development is happening: More than 90 percent of the development in the Permian Basin is well south of the lesser prairie chicken range.

The law will mostly prevent new activities that would result in the loss of habitat, Mr. Nichols said.

Still, oil and gas companies have said that protections are unnecessary.

Ben Shepperd, the president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association in Texas, said in a statement that the decision on Thursday was “careless 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 enrolled and tens of millions of dollars have been spent to protect the species,” Mr. Shepperd said.

Senators Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran, both Republicans of Kansas, condemned the agency’s decision on Thursday in a joint statement, saying that the ruling would hurt the economy.

Conservationists, however, say that the health of the lesser prairie chickens is indicative of the overall health of the country’s grasslands, which are economically and culturally significant to the Great Plains.

Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said by phone on Thursday that energy companies, including those that operate wind turbines, have been accelerating habitat losses for the chickens, particularly in Texas and Oklahoma.

“These small groups of lesser prairie chickens that no longer can interact with other groups — one by one, the populations weaken and disappear,” Mr. Robinson said. “And that’s a recipe for extinction.”