Recently, the Obama administration said that it will not appeal the September 2015 and February 2016 U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas rulings that removed the lesser prairie chicken from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list.
The Texas rulings found that Fish and Wildlife failed to make a proper evaluation of a multi-state conservation plan when it listed the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened”.
In 2014, the grouse species was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, one step below “endangered,” meaning that federal officials believed the bird would quickly be in danger of becoming extinct.
The birds range across sagebrush regions of five states, with about half of the current population living in Kansas. The other regions include Oklahoma, eastern portions of New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, and across the Texas panhandle, dipping into Val Verde County, south of I-10, and north of Del Rio. This area is squarely in the middle of significant ranching operations, and oil and gas and wind energy development in Texas.
Industry operators saw the placement of the chicken on the list as a direct threat to their livelihood, and claimed the listing would cost their operations millions of dollars. These individuals took action, joining together with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) on the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan (LEPC RWP), and the Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Exchange. These organizations aimed to provide new incentives for industry to minimize and mitigate its impacts throughout the southern Great Plains region, and for private landowners to improve and expand habitats for the ground-dwelling bird and other native species.
According to the Habitat Exchange site, the Exchange allows industry to benefit from a predictable value for credits that can be purchased to offset the impacts of development, and a standard set of rules and regulatory assurances, even if a species is listed, to ensure that projects move forward. Through prescribed activities like managed grazing, converting marginal lands back to native grass and marking fences, industry became part of the solution to the conservation issue.
Due largely to these efforts, there is good news for the lesser prairie chicken. In it’s second annual report on the species to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WAFWA, which oversees the LEPC RWP, said that the grouse species had another successful year in 2015.
In the report, WAFWA said the chicken’s range-wide population had increased by 25 percent to just more than 29,000 birds. Meanwhile, industry partners had committed nearly $51 million in fees to pay for mitigation actions, and landowners and operators across the multi-state range agreed to conserve more than 67,000 acres of habitat.
Industry leaders across Texas expressed their satisfaction with the news that there would not be an appeal by the Obama Administration.
“I am pleased the administration decided to drop their appeal of the 2015 federal district court decision that removed the lesser prairie chicken from the threatened list,” said Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association president Richard Thorpe.
“Ranchers across Texas and the Southwest are the best stewards of our nation’s land and have implemented successful conservation practices on their property,” he said. “Federal regulations only inhibit their ability to implement these practices and provide food and fiber for a rapidly increasing world population.”
Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, told the Midland Reporter-Telegram, “We are extremely pleased and proud with the outcome. We feel vindicated that the court agreed with us that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had overstepped its authority in listing the lesser prairie chicken.”
Even with the news, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), who has long opposed listing the bird for federal protection, noted the Fish and Wildlife Service’s intention to reassess the bird’s status.
“We have certainly not seen the last of the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda,” Roberts told AP reporters.