ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KFOR) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is listing two Distinct Population Segments (DPS) of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Southern DPS of the lesser prairie-chicken is being listed as endangered while the Northern DPS of the lesser prairie-chicken is being listed as threatened.
USFWS officials say the lesser prairie-chicken serves as an important measure of the overall health of America’s grasslands as they need large, unfragmented parcels of intact native prairies to maintain self-sustaining populations.
“The lesser prairie-chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril. These habitats support a diversity of wildlife and are valued for water quality, climate resilience, grazing, hunting and recreation,” said USFWS Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders. “The Service continues to work with stakeholders to develop voluntary conservation agreements that will protect the lesser prairie-chicken and the native grasslands on which it depends while assuring that oil and gas and renewable energy development, ranching, agriculture and other activities continue.”
While historical estimates suggest lesser prairie-chickens once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, across nearly 100 million acres, populations have declined drastically due to habitat loss and fragmentation.
Lesser prairie-chicken habitat has diminished across its historical range by about 90 percent. Aerial survey results from 2012 through 2022 estimate a five-year average lesser prairie-chicken population of 32,210 across the five-state region.
Officials say their decline reflects the larger decline in the vitality and resilience in shinnery oak, sand sagebrush and mixed- and short-grass prairie ecosystems.
Voluntary conservation efforts have helped conserve key habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken but have not demonstrated an ability to offset the threats and reverse the trends of habitat loss and fragmentation facing the lesser prairie-chicken.
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A thorough review of past, present, and future threats to the lesser prairie-chicken, as well as an analysis of ongoing conservation efforts, finds the Southern DPS is in danger of extinction, and the Northern DPS is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The Southern DPS encompasses lesser prairie-chicken populations in eastern New Mexico and across the southwest Texas Panhandle. The Northern DPS encompasses lesser prairie-chicken populations in southeastern Colorado, southcentral to western Kansas, western Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle.
According to the USFWS’s Species Status Assessment, habitat loss and fragmentation are expected to continue, resulting in continued declines across the species’ range even when accounting for ongoing and future conservation efforts.
“We have worked to ensure there are extensive options available for streamlined ESA compliance for all industries across the entire estimated occupied range of the lesser prairie-chicken,” said Lueders. “Moving forward, we welcome the opportunity to work with any other interested parties to develop additional options to fit their needs while providing regulatory certainty.”
The USFWS says the designation of critical habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken is prudent but not determinable at this time.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) released a statement on the lesser prairie chicken’s endangered designation:
“I am extremely disappointed to learn the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken under the Endangered Species Act,” Inhofe said. “I have emphasized time and again the harm this listing will have on Oklahomans, especially our agriculture and oil and gas industry. This unnecessary listing ignores the success of current conservation efforts and will undoubtedly discourage future additional voluntary conservation efforts by private entities like that from farmers, ranchers, energy companies and other stakeholders.”