USFWS Sued on Lesser Prairie Chicken

Environmental Group Sues Biden Administration for Delay on Listing Lesser Prairie Chicken

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service missed the June 2022 deadline to finalize an Endangered Species Act rule to list the lesser prairie chicken. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday after the Biden administration missed a June 2022 deadline to finalize Endangered Species Act listings for the lesser prairie chicken.

The group asked a federal court in New Mexico to order the USFWS to finalize a threatened listing for the northern population of the lesser prairie chicken that covers southeastern Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and the northeast Texas Panhandle, as well as an endangered listing for the southern population in New Mexico and the southwest Texas Panhandle.

In May 2021, the Biden administration announced it was reversing a Trump administration decision to drop the planned listings.

The proposal was met with disappointment from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, who said progress toward protecting the species was being made through voluntary conservation measures.

"Because lesser prairie chickens are vulnerable to birds of prey, they instinctively stay away from vertical structures that raptors utilize as perches, including trees and, more recently, powerlines, telephone poles, and drilling rigs," the CBD said in its lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

"As a result of these increasingly common manmade structures, the birds have a rapidly diminishing number of places to live. The lesser prairie chicken's decline has also been fueled by the degradation and fragmentation of the vast southern Great Plains through conversion to cropland, grazing of cattle, and oil and gas development, as well as by drought and high temperatures linked to global warming."

The group asked the court to declare USFWS in violation of the Endangered Species Act and to require the agency to publish a final rule by a certain date.

"Defendants' violation of the ESA's nondiscretionary mandatory deadlines has delayed the ESA's protections for the lesser prairie chicken, harming the center's members' interests in them," the CBD said in its lawsuit.

"These injuries are actual, concrete injuries that are presently suffered by the center's members, are directly caused by defendants' acts and omissions, and will continue unless the court grants relief."

During its May 2021 announcement, USFWS said the lesser prairie chicken once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Aerial surveys from 2012 to 2020, however, estimate a five-year average lesser prairie chicken population of 27,384 across the five-state region, USFWS said. It is estimated that lesser prairie-chicken habitat has diminished across its historical range by about 90%.

Back in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to drop an appeal of a district court decision, ending its pursuit of listing the lesser prairie chicken as endangered through the Endangered Species Act.

The Justice Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered no explanation for dropping the appeal at the time, saying efforts to protect the species would continue.

USFWS announced a plan to protect the species in 2014. In July 2015, the agency cited lesser prairie chickens were growing in population.

At the time, increases were observed in three of four of the bird's ecoregions across Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Aerial surveys by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies led to estimates that the bird's population increased by nearly 50% since the 2013 drought in Kansas. As rainfall returned to historical levels since 2014, the bird's population has increased.

Read more on DTN:

"Lesser Prairie Chicken Listing Returns,"…

"Endangered Species Act Rules Targeted,"…

"Species Listing Dropped,"…

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Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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