WASHINGTON — The federal government will begin a yearlong review to determine whether the lesser prairie chicken, whose habitat is concentrated in western Oklahoma and four other states, should be listed as a threatened species.
Oklahoma elected officials, who had been concerned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would pursue a path toward listing the bird as an endangered species, hailed the decision Friday and said the proposed protection would mean fewer restrictions on energy development, agriculture and other activities in the bird's habitat.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who has been working with Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe for several months on the issue, said, “Given the tough odds that we faced originally, a proposed listing as ‘threatened' is the best possible outcome at this time because it brings us one step closer to achieving a ‘not-warranted' decision in the coming months.”
A not-warranted decision would mean the bird, a species of prairie grouse, would not have federal protection.
Members of the public will have 90 days to comment on the agency's plan to list the bird as threatened. A hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 5 in Woodward to take public input. Hearings also are scheduled for February in Kansas, Texas and New Mexico.
Scientific evidence shows the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat are in decline, prompting the decision to seek a listing as a threatened species, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported.
“We are encouraged by current multistate efforts to conserve the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat, but more work needs to be done to reverse its decline,” Ashe said Friday.
Gov. Mary Fallin said the state has invested $26 million since 1996 for conservation efforts in more than 563,000 acres to protect the bird.
“While I believe the decision to classify the lesser prairie chicken as ‘threatened' is overly cautious, the fact that it was not listed as ‘endangered' is a sign the federal government appreciates our efforts to protect this animal and its habitat,” Fallin said.
“I'm hopeful the lesser prairie chicken conservation plan already being put into practice by wildlife managers in Oklahoma and our neighboring states will eventually lead to the species receiving a ‘not warranted' decision from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 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. The service first identified the bird for protection in 1998; Colorado has listed the species as threatened.
In July, an electricity transmission company seeking to take wind power from the Oklahoma Panhandle to other states signed an agreement with state conservation officials to protect the bird's habitat while developing its projects.
The birds, especially nesting hens, tend to be afraid of tall structures such as windmills or transmission poles, which can serve as perches for predators. There are between 2,000 and 3,000 lesser prairie chickens in Oklahoma, according to recent population estimates.
Gary Sherrer, Oklahoma's secretary of the environment, said the federal agency's decision to pursue a lesser category of protection “is a direct result of the conservation efforts being made by landowners, industry and our state agencies.”
David Festa, vice president of the Land, Water and Wildlife program for Environmental Defense Fund, said the group is working with land users to set up Wildlife Habitat Exchanges — a cooperative approach to conservation that provides ample habitat protection at low cost.
The group “supports Wildlife Habitat Exchanges as a proven model that could change the trajectory of the lesser prairie chicken,” Festa said. “It can bring the species back from the brink and put it on a path toward recovery before the final listing decision is made.”
Contributing: Staff Writer Paul Monies