Federal wildlife agencies have listed the boom-or-bust prairie chicken as a threatened species in Colorado and southern states as endangered, a target of a long environmental campaign but a disappointment for farmers who fear new restrictions.
“The decline of the prairie chicken is a sign that our native grasslands and prairies are under threat,” said Amy Lueders, regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest, explaining the new designations after years of scientific study.
Wildlife scientists and advocates say the bird is a leading indicator of healthy, continuous grasslands and prairies, and the species once spanned nearly 100 million acres in the Southwest with a population of possibly millions. It’s now limited to a few million acres broken up by row crops, overgrazing and oil and gas development, with aerial photographs putting the population at 32,000 in five states.
The lesser prairie chicken is now listed as vulnerable in its southern range in New Mexico and Texas, and on the slightly less restrictive endangered list in its northern range, including Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
With an eviction threatened, farmers and ranchers can continue most land uses, but face new scrutiny if there are significant changes. The service’s FAQs on the decision said that the northern habitat for the prairie chicken bird “is not currently critically endangered, but is likely to be critically endangered throughout its range in the foreseeable future.”
With the endangered list, southern landowners could be forced to reverse some existing practices to avoid “taking” the birds. Land-use restrictions on listed species can affect everything from row crops to wetland construction to roads, energy development, and solar and wind farms.
“For more than 25 years, smaller prairie chickens have been on a roller coaster of listing decisions, court orders and failed recovery efforts while their populations continue to decline at an alarming rate,” said Daly Edmunds, Policy and Outreach Director for Audubon Rockies. The bird has already been listed as threatened under Colorado rules, Edmunds said, but needs even stronger federal protection.
“We hope that this decision and the additional attention given to this species and its habitat will ultimately change course for this bird,” she said.
WildEarth Guardians, among other groups, are “relieved” at the federal move, said Joe Bushyhead, an endangered species advocate for the nonprofit.
“Voluntary conservation agreements with industry have not done enough to halt the bird’s decline,” Bushyhead said. “The Endangered Species Act is the single most effective tool to prevent extinction, so we’re optimistic that listing will provide a lifeline and a path to eventual recovery.”
Farm and ranch advocates said they were disappointed with the listings, citing years of work with the service and with nonprofit groups to set aside conservation easements to support lesser prairie chicken habitat and pasture management efforts.
“We always hate seeing labels, just like an industry,” said Zach Riley, executive director of the Colorado Livestock Association. “Because that just means it becomes impunity management of a species or animal without involving the original stewards of the land,” he said.
The loss of more land-use control to state wildlife designations has long been the reality for farmers and ranchers dealing with species ranging from gray wolves to sage grouse and more, Riley noted.
“It always seems to be the MO of the environmental groups that go after the industries and use the Endangered Species Act to do it,” he said.
The federal agency noted the efforts of hundreds of landowners who have reserved 1.8 million acres of wildlife sanctuaries and 3 million acres of conservation treaties in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Still, according to the agency, the volunteer efforts “have not demonstrated an ability to offset threats and reverse trends of habitat loss and fragmentation” for the species.
The smaller prairie chicken thrives in years of higher rainfall, which strengthen prairie wetlands, and then declines sharply during the drought years that have plagued the Southwest in recent decades.
Environmentalists said they need to see the final details of the federal rules, to be released later this month, before deciding whether enough safeguards have been expanded. Bushyhead said WildEarth Guardians have been pushing for Colorado lands to be included in the more restrictive endangered designation.
“We need to review the rule of service to ensure it provides lasting and effective protections for these populations,” he said.