AS part of a sweetheart deal with environmental groups, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to review 250 species for further listing, including the lesser prairie-chicken.
On Nov. 30, the agency said it was initiating a process to consider whether the lesser prairie-chicken should be recognized as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
ESA hasn't been reauthorized or modernized since 1988, and many in agriculture feel it should be updated to better meet the needs of landowners as well as the species, Dustin Van Liew, director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), explained.
The lesser prairie-chicken's habitat covers some of the most significant cattle-producing states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. Van Liew said NCBA is closely watching the listing because of the economic impact it could have on agriculture in the area.
Once found in abundant numbers across much of the five-state region, the lesser prairie-chicken's historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced an estimated 84%. The state of Colorado has listed the species as threatened. FWS first identified the lesser prairie-chicken as a candidate for ESA protection in 1998.
However, a statement from the Congressional Western Caucus said, despite having faced one of the worst droughts on record in recent years, the prairie chicken population is on the rise or holding steady in many parts of the country, suggesting that current voluntary agreements have been a success and calling into question the need for federal regulation.
Van Liew said many of the current listings or proposed species listings are driven through lawsuits, which provides "fertile ground to advance an anti-business, anti-farming agenda." He did note that the Administration is open to working with the industry on voluntary agreements to "minimize or streamline impacts on ranchers."
State conservation agencies, in partnership with federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Land Management and others like the Sutton Center, are working on a range-wide, voluntary conservation planning effort that will play a significant role in conserving the lesser prairie-chicken's habitat.
"We are encouraged by current multi-state efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat, but more work needs to be done to reverse its decline," FWS director Dan Ashe said. "Similar to what state and federal partners in this region accomplished when the dunes sagebrush lizard was proposed, we must redouble our important work to identify solutions that provide for the long-term conservation of the species and also help working families remain on the land they have stewarded for generations."
Van Liew also cited the dune sagebrush lizard as an example of where voluntary agreements precluded FWS from making an ESA listing decision.
The ability to work at the local level is also finding favor on Capitol Hill. Many members of the Congressional Western Caucus pointed to success stories resulting from public/private partnerships and criticized how litigation is pushing the listings rather than science.
"This decision could drive ranching families and energy producers out of business. It's clear that the Endangered Species Act has grown out of hand and is being driven more by litigation than science," Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R., Texas) said. "In Texas, public/private partnerships have proven successful at maintaining habitat for wildlife while still allowing productive use of our resources. I hope (FWS) reconsiders this listing and chooses a more cooperative approach."
FWS said it will make a final determination on whether to add the lesser prairie-chicken to the Federal List of Endangered & Threatened Wildlife based on the best-available science.
FWS will hold four public hearings in four states in February to gather public comments on the listing proposal. Members of the public and scientific community are encouraged to review and comment on the proposal during the 90-day public comment period.
More information is available at www.fws.gov/southwest/es/LPC.html.