US grants protections to rare Midwestern bird as prairie suffers

US grants protections to rare Midwestern bird as prairie suffers

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) – The U.S. government on Thursday announced protections for two populations of a rare grassland bird found in parts of the Midwest, including one of the nation’s most prolific oil and gas fields.

The range of the Little Prairie Chicken covers part of the oil-rich Permian Basin along the New Mexico and Texas state line and extends into parts of Colorado, Oklahoma and the Kansas. The habitat of the bird, a type of grouse, has declined across about 90% of its historic range, officials said.

“The decline of lesser prairie grouse is a sign that our native grasslands and grasslands are in jeopardy,” said Amy Lueders, southwest regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The raven-sized landbirds are known for springtime courtship rituals that include flamboyant dances by the males as they make a cacophony of clucks, cackles, and booming sounds. They were once thought to number in the millions, but now surveys showthe five-year average population across the range hovers around 30,000.

Environmentalists have sought stronger federal protections for decades. They consider the species critically endangered due to oil and gas development, cattle grazing, agriculture, and the construction of roads and power lines.

Congressional Republicans have said greater protections are not needed and that the government should instead build on the voluntary conservation efforts already in place. Kansas’ newly elected Republican attorney general has vowed to challenge the Fish and Wild Life Service’s decision in court once he takes office in January.

The decision covers the southern population of the grouse in New Mexico and the southern part of the Texas Panhandle, where they are considered endangered, and their northern range, where they have been given less severe “threatened” status. The rule comes into effect at the end of January.

Landowners and the oil and gas industry say they have had success with voluntary conservation programs aimed at protecting habitat and increasing bird numbers.

But population estimates reveal southern areas have lower resilience and may have as few as 5,000 birds remaining, with estimates falling to 1,000 in 2015 and 2022 following drought conditions, officials said. .

The federal government in 2014 listed the bird as endangered, but was forced to reverse that two years later after court rulings determined the agency had failed to properly consider voluntary conservation efforts.

Landowners and oil companies already participating in such programs will not be affected by Thursday’s decision because they have taken steps to protect habitat, officials said. It prevents activities that result in the loss or degradation of existing habitat.

More than 9,375 square miles (24,280 square kilometers) were covered by conservation agreements as of last spring.

“In their final settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first praised the voluntary efforts of landowners to increase prairie chicken populations in Kansas, then unilaterally decided that the federal government was better equipped to deal with these local areas,” the Republican Rep. from Kansas said. Kansas’ Tracey Mann said in a statement.

A 2014 Kansas law states that the state has sole authority to regulate the species — as well as the larger, darker, and more abundant Greater Prairie Chicken — and their habitats within state boundaries. It authorizes the Attorney General or county attorneys to prosecute any federal attempt to enforce conservation measures.

Kansas Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach — a staunch defender of the state’s 2014 law when it was signed into law — predicted during his campaign this year that President Joe Biden’s administration would act on the little chicken. of the prairies and said his decision “seriously jeopardizes” the construction of wind farms and pushes oil and natural gas production “to the brink of extinction.”

“What a surprise they waited after the elections to announce this move!” Kobach said in a statement. “As Attorney General, I will fight this illegal action in court.”

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said animal welfare is “great” but has come too late for prairie chickens in some areas. Robinson’s group sued the government last month because it was five months late in issuing a final decision. The bird’s first application for protection was filed in 1995.

“We wish the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection for 27 years,” Robinson said, “because quicker action would have meant many more little prairie chickens alive in many more places today. ‘today.”

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