WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday listed the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, but it minimized the restrictions on energy production, agriculture and other activity in Oklahoma and neighboring states where the bird has its habitat.
The listing of threatened — a step below endangered — followed years of review and was something of a split decision.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and state officials had been trying to keep the bird off the endangered or threatened list, hoping the administration would allow the bird to be protected under a voluntary conservation plan developed among interested parties in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken — a species of prairie grouse — as threatened, but it also allowed economic activity to continue under the multi-state conservation plan.
In its announcement, the service said the bird would be listed under a rule that would “limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing.”
Listing under the rule was the result of “significant and ongoing efforts of states and landowners to conserve the lesser prairie chicken” and will allow Oklahoma and the other states to continue to manage conservation efforts and avoid further regulation, according to the service.
Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said, “The lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits. Our determination that it warrants listing as a threatened species with a special rule acknowledges the unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states for management of the species.”
Working through the conservation plan, “the states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species — more than has ever been done before — and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirement,” Ashe said.
Inhofe criticizes action
As with many compromise decisions, the service angered some on both sides.
Inhofe and other Oklahoma lawmakers criticized the listing, as did the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. Some environmental groups also were disappointed.
Inhofe called the decision “purely political.”
States spent $21 million to implement the range-wide plan, which covered millions more acres than required under the listing demand, Inhofe said.
“My greatest concern in today’s decision is that it is easier to list a species than it is to de-list it,” Inhofe said.
“Just look at the American Burying Beetle in eastern Oklahoma. The beetle has been listed as endangered since 1989, even though newly published population surveys show a population 10 times larger than the conservation goals outlines in the original ABB conservation plans.”
Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians said, “The lesser prairie chicken is endangered, period.
“Yet instead of protecting the bird from serious threats, the service exempts anyone who signs on to entirely voluntary state or local conservation plans, undermining the very purpose of protecting imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act.”
According to the service, the lesser prairie chicken has been in trouble for 15 years, with drought and habitat loss in the southern Great Plains driving down its population. Last year, the service said, the range-wide population declined to a record low of 17,616 birds, down almost 50 percent from 2012. The goal of the states’ conservation plan is to restore the population to 67,000 birds across the range.
“To date, we understand that oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have signed up over 3 million acres of land for participation in the states’ range-wide conservation plan and the (Natural Resources Conservation Service’s) Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative,” Ashe said. “We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie chickens.”
Gov. Mary Fallin was far less critical of the listing than some of her Republican colleagues. She praised the role of the state Wildlife Conservation Department in developing a conservation model that would keep states in charge of managing the species.
“The potential impact of this listing, without the Range Wide Plan, could have resulted in damaging hits to our state’s economy, particularly our energy and agriculture industries,” she said.
David Festa, vice president of land, water and wildlife for the Environmental Defense Fund, praised the service’s approach.
“It’s a sad day when a species has to get listed,” he said. “The bright spot is that the service has opened the door to innovative approaches for species conservation, as demonstrated by its commitment to range-wide planning. By sharing the responsibility for species protection with the states and private landowners, the service has increased the potential for recovery of the lesser prairie chicken. This is a big evolution in how the (Endangered Species) Act gets implemented.”
Officials react to lesser prairie chicken listing
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt:
“The decision on the lesser prairie chicken appears to be less about sound science and saving endangered species, and more about federal agencies partnering with like-minded environmental groups to thwart development and destroy private property rights. This scheme undermines the rule of law and congressional authority. My office has filed a lawsuit challenging the (Fish and Wildlife Service) for these unlawful tactics and will continue to challenge other federal agencies that engage in ‘sue and settle’ tactics.”
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City:
“Historically, the federal government has a deplorable 2 percent record of recovering species once they have been listed. The state of Oklahoma can and should lead in LPC recovery — not have yet another federal takeover of private land.
“I hope the Administration will see the commitment the five states have to conserving this species, and work with Oklahoma to remove the lesser prairie-chicken from the threatened list.”
Kim Hatfield, chairman of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association’s regulatory committee:
“It is unfortunate that Oklahomans will now shoulder a burdensome and expensive regulatory scheme due to a bird that has been impacted more by weather than industry activity. Listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened will have adverse consequences for oil and natural gas producers in western Oklahoma, where a vibrant energy industry has proven to be a job creator and a blessing for landowners whose livelihoods have also been impacted by the weather.”
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne:
“I was disappointed the Fish and Wildlife Service announced the listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“I believe the conservation efforts seen in the five-range states were more than sufficient to warrant a non-listing of the LPC. While I understand the importance of conserving the species, this means Oklahoma farmers, ranchers and energy producers will have to abide to an additional layer of burdensome regulation.”