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