WASHINGTON — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it has endorsed a plan by Oklahoma and four other states to protect the lesser prairie chicken, a victory for those trying to keep the bird off the federal list of protected species.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who has been pushing the federal agency to allow state conservation efforts time to work, praised the announcement.
“Fish and Wildlife's decision to endorse the five-state, range-wide conservation plan developed by the state wildlife agencies is a good next step to ensure that the conservation of the lesser prairie chicken precludes a listing under the Endangered Species Act,” Inhofe said.
“It is vital to maintain the conservation efforts at the state level. ... A listing could harm Oklahoma's farmers and ranchers, our booming energy industry and the future development of infrastructure in our state.”
Brian Woodard of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association testified last year during a congressional hearing in Edmond that a designation of Oklahoma as a critical habitat for the species would be “economically chilling” to the state's oil and gas industry.
The prairie chicken was a consideration in developing the planned $2 billion project by Clean Line Energy to erect a transmission line from the Oklahoma Panhandle to Tennessee. Clean Line agreed to use a planning tool developed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to help pick the best sites for its project.
Despite the endorsement of the plan by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service could still list the bird — a species of prairie grouse — as protected.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will “carefully consider the plan, its implementation and effectiveness when it makes a final determination on whether to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act in March, 2014,” according to the agency.
Dan Ashe, director of the service, called the states' plan “sound” and said he applauded the commitment to lead conservation efforts across the bird's range.
The agency announced last December that it was beginning a yearlong review to determine whether the bird should be listed as a threatened species. Federal protection limits the kind of activity that can be conducted in a species' habitat.
The lesser prairie chicken once thrived in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, but its historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The population declined by an estimated 50 percent last year, primarily due to drought conditions in the West, the agency said Wednesday.
The conservation plan by the five range states would provide financial incentives to landowners who take steps to protect the species, and it includes a framework for reducing the harmful effects from economic activity; the service said the plan is consistent with criteria proposed by the service in May.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he was encouraged that the agency endorsed the five-state conservation plan. However, he said he was “deeply troubled” that the Obama administration left open the possibility of a federal listing.
The administration “should be allowing states, agriculture, property owners and job-producing industries to continue working on conserving the lesser prairie chicken while simultaneously allowing for multiple use of private lands in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado,” Hastings said.