WASHINGTON — Rep. James Lankford pressed federal officials Thursday about the process used to list endangered species and suggested sketchy data has forced Oklahoma to spend millions of dollars to keep the lesser prairie chicken off the list.
At a House subcommittee hearing, Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, also said focusing on a species’ habitat rather than a target population number was a way of restricting development in western states.
Officials with the Interior and Commerce departments countered that they base their decisions on the best scientific information available. They said the 40-year-old Endangered Species Act had protected some animals and fish from sure extinction and allowed other populations to grow and stabilize.
Michael J. Bean, a counselor at the Interior Department, told the Lankford-led subcommittee that acrimony toward the law displayed by some in Washington wasn’t evident among landowners in the country who were willing to take voluntary steps to protect threatened species.
“When you offer landowners an opportunity to work constructively, you can have success,” Bean said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing whether to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened; the designation would restrict land use in the five-state habitat that includes Oklahoma. Last fall, the service endorsed a conservation plan by the five states, leading to optimism among state leaders that the bird won’t be listed for protection.
Lankford said the origin of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s examination of the bird — a type of prairie grouse — appeared to be a University of Nebraska student’s dissertation in 1968.
The student’s paper said the bird could be harmed if people plant trees or crops, build roads or allow cattle to graze, Lankford said. Among the student’s suggestion for protecting the bird was returning the land to its conditions before European settlement in America, he said.