Ag Policy Blog

Never mind: USFWS Reverses Decision not to List Lesser Prairie Chicken

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Though a Texas court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw a proposal to list the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species in the Endangered Species Act, the agency Tuesday announced plans to consider re-listing the species after a petition filed with USFWS provided what the agency said it believes warrants another look.

Back in May 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice decided to drop an appeal of a district court decision, essentially ending the agency's pursuit of listing the lesser prairie chicken.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has completed initial reviews of three Endangered Species Act petitions and found that two present substantial information that the petitioned action may be warranted," the agency said in a news release Tuesday.

"A petition to list the lesser prairie chicken as endangered and another to list the leopard as endangered throughout its range in Africa will move to the next phase, where each species will undergo a thorough status review."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Tuesday he was hopeful private/public conservation efforts to preserve the bird would be allowed to work.

"Just last year the Western District of Texas appropriately overturned the lesser prairie chicken's previous listing, noting that the service did not adequately consider the effectiveness of the states' conservation plans when it assessed the species’ need for federal protection," Inhofe said.

"It is important that we let the multi-state conservation plan have time to work before bringing down the full force of the Endangered Species Act. The ESA should be a last resort. Local, cooperative efforts, as seen in Oklahoma and her partner states, could set a precedent for a way to move forward on species conservation without the heavy hand of the federal government.

"I am confident that the Trump administration is aware that state conservation is sufficient to protect the lesser prairie chicken and I will work with the new administration to ensure local efforts are given the chance to work."

In July 2016, the bird was removed from the ESA list of endangered and threatened wildlife following a September 2015 court order from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. That ruling vacated the service's 2014 listing rule.

In the spring of 2015, USFWS began assessing the biological status of the lesser prairie chicken expected to be completed in the summer of 2017.

Back in May 2016 the justice department and USFWS offered no explanation for dropping the appeal, saying only that efforts to protect the species would continue.

That decision came as a welcomed surprise to rural lawmakers and agriculture groups that fought the push to list the lesser prairie chicken as endangered. Farm organizations had called the listing a threat to farmers and ranchers.

The Texas court ruled the listing was "arbitrary and capricious." The court determined voluntary conservation efforts that have resulted in overall population increases of about 25% from 2014 to 2015, were ignored by the administration.

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

Increases were observed in three of four of the bird's ecoregions across Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The Sand Sage Prairie Region of southeast Colorado showed the biggest gain at about 75% from a year ago. The mixed grass prairie region of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas saw about a 30% increase, while the shortgrass prairie region of northwest Kansas population grew by about 27%.

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 has returned to historical levels since 2014, the bird's population has increased.

Information on the proposed listing can be submitted from the date of publication in the Federal Register until Jan. 30, 2017.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow me on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

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