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USF&W lists lesser prairie-chicken as "threatened"; Fallin, Lankford respond
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- In response to the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie-chicken, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced the final listing of the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as a final special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that will limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing. Under the law, a “threatened” listing means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future; it is a step below “endangered” under the ESA and allows for more flexibility in how the Act’s protections are implemented.

In recognition of the significant and ongoing efforts of states and landowners to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken, this unprecedented use of a special 4(d) rule will allow the five range states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (WAFWA) range-wide conservation plan.

This range-wide conservation plan was developed by state wildlife agency experts in 2013 with input from a wide variety of stakeholders. The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation.

“The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “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 WAFWA range-wide 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 requirements.”

The Service has considered the lesser prairie-chicken, a species of prairie grouse commonly recognized for its colorful spring mating display and stout build, to be a species in trouble for the past 15 years. Its population is in rapid decline, due largely to habitat loss and fragmentation and the ongoing drought in the southern Great Plains. Once abundant across much of the five range states of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, the lesser prairie-chicken’s  historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent.

Last year, the range-wide population declined to a record low of 17,616 birds, an almost 50 percent reduction from the 2012 population estimate. The states’ conservation plan has a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide.

“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 NRCS’ Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative,” said Ashe. “We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie-chickens.”

In addition to the range-wide conservation plan and the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, a number of other on-the-ground programs have been implemented over the last decade across the bird’s five-state range to conserve and restore its habitat and improve its status. Key programs such as the USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, the Bureau of Land Management’s New Mexico Candidate Conservation Agreement, the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, are engaging state and federal agencies, landowners and industry in these efforts.

Collectively, these programs – and in particular, the range-wide conservation plan – serve as a comprehensive framework within which conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken can be achieved. The various efforts are similar to a recovery plan, something that the Service normally prepares after a species’ listing. This early identification of a strategy to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken is likely to speed its eventual delisting.

However, threats impacting the species remain and are expected to continue into the future. After reviewing the best available science and on-the-ground conservation efforts focused on the species, the Service determined that the lesser prairie-chicken is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future and warrants listing as threatened under the ESA. The agency is under a court-ordered deadline to make a listing determination on the species by March 31.

The final rule to list the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened and the final special rule will publish in the Federal Register and will be effective 30 days after publication. Copies of the final rules may be found at the Service’s website at

In the meantime, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin commented late Thursday on the news of U.S. Fish & Wildlife announcing that the lesser prairie-chicken is being listed as a threatened species:

“While I had asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the lesser prairie-chicken under the ESA, due in large part to Oklahoma’s efforts to develop and implement the Range Wide Plan, I believe we have a unique opportunity to show how a plan based in state management of this species can allow for a quick recovery,” said Fallin. “I appreciate the outstanding work of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to develop a new conservation model that keeps states in charge of managing species, like the lesser-prairie chicken, rather than the federal government taking over all management control.

Fallin continued: “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. With a large amount of conservation already taking place, my administration will take all steps to continue to implement this plan and work with the Service to de-list this species as soon as possible. I am very excited to see industry and the states continue to work together on conserving this bird with our jointly developed conservation strategies.”

The Range Wide Plan was developed based on the Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Plan and the support of stakeholders across the entire range, which covers the entire 40-million acre range of the species across Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas. As part of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s listing decision, an exception to the take prohibition was issued to those who enroll and follow the Range Wide Plan. This represents a historic new option for landowners and industry to have available to them. Today, more than 25 percent of the species habitat is under conservation practices that follow the Range Wide Plan.

Enrollment in the Range Wide Plan will continue and allow for enrollees to receive take protection and continue to be managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation rather than the federal government. For more information on enrollment in the plan, contact Allan Janus at (405) 744-9527. Additional enrollments will allow for a record to be built to facilitate a quicker recovery and delisting of the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

And U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma City) also responded to the announcement by saying: "This is a prime example of how the Administration inserts itself into the lives of Americans at every possible turn, forcing federal regulations on hardworking Americans and the communities they call home. It is absurd to think that local land and business owners do not care about the quality of the environment in their own backyard and need to be federally controlled. Now that the LPC is listed as threatened, landowners and industry developers in the LPC’s habitat are going to be burdened with the financial hardships and management difficulties that come with federal regulations.

“There is a way to protect species and their habitats in a way that allows for continued economic development and growth without imposing greater regulations in agriculture and energy industries. The five states in the range of the chicken proactively designed a comprehensive conservation strategy and have to date enrolled 11 million acres for conservation purposes—an unprecedented action and accomplishment—undertaken entirely by state and local stakeholders. By listing the LPC, the Administration has shown it does not trust the states to be good stewards of their own land, even when they have clear evidence to the contrary. Historically, the federal government has a deplorable 2% 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. I will continue to perform oversight on the Administration’s broken policies and work to ensure taxpayer dollars are being utilized effectively," Lankford concluded.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. 

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