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Conservation Groups Urge Endangered Species Act Protection of Lesser Prairie-Chicken

July 23, 2003
WildEarth Guardians
In This Release
Santa Fe, NM – July 23. WildEarth Guardians and other conservation groups have warned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) of their intent to sue the agency over its failure to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In June 1998, the prairie chicken, found in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, was determined to warrant ESA protection but was considered precluded by higher priority species. Five years later, it has not even been proposed for listing and therefore remains an unprotected candidate species. The groups’ notice of intent to sue asserts that in the five years since it was deemed worthy of protection under the ESA, the prairie chicken has declined further as a result of continued habitat destruction from oil and gas and agricultural development and livestock grazing. Moreover, the groups allege the FWS’ excuses for not having listed the species are fundamentally flawed.

“With the hardship of intense agricultural development and the callousness of the Bush Energy Plan – in addition to drought – we’re losing the prairie chicken,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Endangered Species Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Warranted but precluded status has been a purgatory for this bird on the brink. We won’t sit by while this species continues to slip towards extinction,” Rosmarino added.

The notice challenges the Service’s policy of delaying listings by designating at-risk species as candidates that warrant listing but are precluded by higher priority actions. Current national policy instructs regional Service offices to cease work on listing actions not under court order or settlement agreement unless additional funds remain to allow work on non-court ordered actions. The policy, started under the Clinton Administration, has continued under the Bush Administration, and it effectively prevents Service Regions from finalizing listing on most “warranted but precluded” species.

The groups also claim that the FWS can no longer rely on its “warranted but precluded” status for the prairie chicken because doing so requires making “expeditious progress” in addressing the backlog of unlisted species, something the FWS has failed to do. In 2002 and 2003, the listing of only one species was finalized in the Southwestern Region, despite the region’s backlog of two-dozen candidate species. Moreover, the single finalized listing that occurred (that of the Chiricahua leopard frog) was forced by a court-ordered settlement agreement. The groups point to a mandate by Congress that the warranted but precluded designation be a short-term measure for the FWS, and not be used as cover for the “foot-dragging efforts of a delinquent agency.”

The conservation groups also argue that the Service is padding the list of candidates in the Southwestern Region to avoid protecting the prairie-chicken. The Notice states, “The list in front of the lesser prairie-chicken keeps increasing, while the prairie-chicken becomes increasingly imperiled.”

The continued decline of the bird’s population throughout its five-state territory also adds greater urgency to list the species. The groups report declines in four of the five states in the prairie-chicken’s range, and a new threat – hybridization with greater prairie-chickens – in the fifth state, Kansas. When the lesser prairie-chicken was determined to warrant listing in 1998, FWS acknowledged that this grouse species occupied less than 10% of its former range. Population declines and further range reduction have continued over the past five years.

The groups claim that Bush administration policies will further degrade species habitat and continue to inadequately fund the Service’s endangered species listing program. In particular, they argue that the Bush Energy Plan, which favors resource extraction over environmental conservation, will further imperil habitat of the lesser prairie-chicken. Currently, protections provided for the prairie-chicken are both inadequate and ignored by the oil and gas industry.

Additional organizations signing on to the Notice of Intent to Sue include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and T & E, Inc. The mission of WildEarth Guardians is to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest through fundamental reform of public policies and practices.