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Emergency Protections Sought for Imperiled Lesser Prairie Chicken

September 8, 2016
Erik Molvar, (307) 399-7910, emolvar@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release

Thursday, September 8, 2016
Emergency Protections Sought for Imperiled Lesser Prairie Chicken

New Science Shows Key Populations Are in Imminent Danger of Extinction
Contact: Erik Molvar, (307) 399-7910, emolvar@wildearthguardians.org

Additional Contacts:

Jason Rylander, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0253, jrylander@defenders.org
Tanya Sanerib, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6407, tsanerib@biologicaldiversity.org

WASHINGTON Conservation organizations today askedthe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the rare and declining dancinggrouse of the Southwest, the lesser prairie chicken, under the EndangeredSpecies Act. The new petition is based on recent scientific studiesthat show an increasing likelihood of the bird’s extinction across severalstates.

In 2014 the Fishand Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken as a “threatened”species under the Endangered Species Act. A federal court in Texas subsequentlyvacated the federal protections on procedural grounds, leaving the survival ofthe bird hanging tenuously on voluntary and largely ineffective conservationmeasures. Today’s petition prompts the Service to reinstate federal protectionsfor the entire species, and seeks emergency protections for the most imperiled isolatedpopulations, in Colorado and western Kansas and along the Texas-New Mexicoborder.

“The science isclear: The lesser prairie chicken is in serious trouble, and voluntaryconservation efforts are not doing enough fast enough to recover these amazingbirds,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The Fishand Wildlife Service has a duty to prevent the extinction of the lesser prairiechicken for the benefit of us all, and to do that it must restore federalprotections as quickly as possible.”

“It took Fish and Wildlife Service ten years tofinally protect lesser prairie chickens under the Endangered Species Act, ayear and a half to lose those protections in court, and now, nearly a yearlater, the agency still has done nothing for the birds,” said Tanya Sanerib, asenior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our only choice wasto petition for new protections because without the Endangered Species Act thebirds won’t make it.”

Although apackage of voluntary protection efforts have been in place since 2013, lesserprairie chickens are not rebounding to healthy and secure populations. Climatechange is a serious threat to their survival, exacerbating problems caused byenergy development, cropland conversion, grassland fragmentation by roads andpower lines, and heavy livestock grazing that denudes the grass cover thesebirds need to hide from natural predators. The summer of 2011 saw some of thehottest and driest conditions on record in the Southern Plains, with groundtemperatures exceeding 130 degrees Fahrenheit, a critical threshold above whichlesser prairie chicken eggs cannot survive. The following year prairie chicken populationsplummeted to their lowest levels in decades. This year is on pace to be thehottest year on record, which does not bode well for the lesser prairiechicken. The Service announced last week it intends to conduct a species statusassessment by March 2017, leaving the birds in limbo in the interim.

“The same threatsthat warranted listing the lesser prairie chicken years ago are even moresevere today,” said Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney for Defenders ofWildlife. “With little evidence that voluntary conservation programs areaddressing these threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should promptlyrelist the species and develop a far better strategy to conserve it on stateand private lands.”

The lesser prairie chicken— an icon of the Southern Plains — once numbered in the millions buthas declined to just 25,000 birds and less than 17 percent of itsoriginal range. Experts estimate the population of lesser prairie chickensat three million birds before the beginning of Euro-American settlement on theGreat Plains.

A series of seminal, scientific studieson lesser prairie chicken were published this year in a compendium, Ecologyand Conservation of Lesser Prairie-Chickens, that describes bleak prospectsfor the species. Among them was research that found a 38percent chance of the Colorado-Kansas population dropping below 50 birds within30 years, which would place them deep within an extinction spiral. The samestudy found a troubling 83.5 percent probability of the total worldwidepopulation of the birds dropping below criticalpopulation thresholds that make recovery very unlikely.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act is an effectivesafety net for imperiled species: More than 99 percent of plants and animalsprotected by the law still exist today. The law is especially important as adefense against the current extinction crisis; species are disappearing at arate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities.Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct by 2006 if not forAct’s protections.

The petitioners areWildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for BiologicalDiversity.

Other Contact
Jason Rylander, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0253, jrylander@defenders.org Tanya Sanerib, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6407, tsanerib@biologicaldiversity.org
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