Washington, D.C The Obama administration announced Thursday it is placing the lesser prairie chicken on a list of threatened species, a move that could affect oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in Kansas and four other states.
Gov. Sam Brownback criticized the move as a federal overreach and said the state is looking for ways to respond. Kansas environmental groups’ reactions were mixed.
Kansas legislators, in anticipation of a federal decision, have been advancing a bill that would prohibit federal officials in Kansas from trying to enforce federal laws protecting the lesser prairie chicken. Called the State Sovereignty Over Non-Migratory Wildlife Act, the measure has been approved by the Senate and is pending in the House. Critics of the bill have said the state can’t trump federal wildlife protection laws.
Thursday’s decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a step below “endangered” status and allows for more flexibility in how protections for the bird will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act.
Dan Ashe, the agency’s director, said he knows the decision will be unpopular with governors in the five affected states — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico — but said the agency was following the best science available.
“The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits,” Ashe said in an interview. “The bird is in decline and has been in decline for more than a decade.”
Brownback disagreed. “This is an overreach on the part of the federal government, and I am concerned about the effect this designation will have on Kansans and the Kansas economy,” he said. “We are looking at possible responses on this issue.”
The prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its colorful feathers and stout build, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat, mostly because of human activity such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines, Ashe said. The bird, which weighs from 1-1/2 to 2 pounds, has also been severely impacted by the region’s ongoing drought.
Biologists say a major problem is that prairie chickens fear tall structures, where predators such as hawks can perch and spot them. Wind turbines, electricity transmission towers and drilling rigs are generally the tallest objects on the plains.
Last year, the prairie chicken’s population across the five states declined to fewer than 18,000 birds — nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 population estimates.
A conservation plan adopted by the five states has a goal of increasing the population to 67,000 birds.
The listing decision, which will take effect around May 1, includes a special rule that Ashe said will allow officials and private landowners in the five affected states to manage conservation efforts. The rule, which Ashe called unprecedented, specifies that activities such as oil and gas drilling and utility line maintenance that are covered under a five-state conservation plan adopted last year will be allowed to continue.
The plan, developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, establishes that conservation practices carried out through usual agricultural and energy development are not subject to further regulation under the Endangered Species Act.
While Brownback criticized Thursday’s decision, Ron Klataske, of Audubon of Kansas, said the listing should help improve nesting and brood habitat.
“It is unfortunate that the species is so decimated by many land use activities, including some federal subsidizes that facilitated in recent decades the conversion of grasslands to cultivation, but the good thing is that the focus can now turn to measures that can be implemented to improve habitat conditions,” Klataske said.
But other environmentalists said the federal action has “unprecedented loopholes” that will endanger the bird.
Oil and gas drilling and other destructive activities will be allowed to continue in exchange for voluntary conservation plans, according to Erik Molvar, a biologist with WildEarth Guardians, and Jay Lininger, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This is an emergency situation that requires the strongest protections possible,” said Lininger. “Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned its back and relied on voluntary conservation plans that only amount to a wink and a nod with no accountability,” he said.
Oklahoma’s attorney general filed a lawsuit this month over the Obama administration’s decision to settle a lawsuit with an environmental group over the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken and other species. Attorney General Scott Pruitt claims in the lawsuit that federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups and using “sue and settle” tactics that encourage lawsuits that can be settled on terms favorable to the groups that filed them.
Ashe denied collusion with any group and said the agency hopes to avoid litigation over the listing decision.
Oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have pledged to devote more than 3 million acres in the five states toward conserving the bird’s habitat. Most of the acreage was set aside in the aim to prevent the bird from being given federal protection as a threatened species, but Ashe said states and private landowners will play a significant role after the listing decision.
“The key thing is, states will remain in the driver’s seat in management and conservation of this bird,” he said.