U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Delists Lesser Prairie-Chicken in Accordance with Court Order

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) yesterday fulfilled a court ruling that had vacated its Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing decision, by officially removing the lesser prairie-chicken from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

Lesser prairie-chicken (photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media)

Lesser prairie-chicken (photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media)

According to the FWS, this administrative action and the decision not to appeal the court’s ruling do not constitute a biological determination on whether or not the lesser prairie-chicken warrants federal protection. The Service is undertaking a thorough re-evaluation of the bird’s status and the threats it faces using the best available scientific information to determine anew whether listing under the ESA is warranted.

“The storied prairie landscape of the Southwest is of tremendous economic and cultural importance. It is also a critical area for the birds, mammals, reptiles and other animals that rely on this unique habitat,” said Service Director Dan Ashe.

“Responding to this court ruling by removing the bird from the Federal List does not mean we are walking away from efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Far from it,” Ashe said. “We are undertaking a new status review to determine whether listing is again warranted, and we will continue to work with our state partners and others on efforts to protect vital habitat and ensure this flagship of the prairies survives well into the future.”

On June 9, 2014, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and several New Mexico counties filed a lawsuit challenging the Service’s 2014 listing of the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species under the ESA. In September 2015, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and vacated the final listing rule, effectively ending ESA protections for the bird.

The ruling had the effect of also invalidating the Service’s rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that tailored the regulations governing take of the species under the ESA to focus on those activities that are threats to the species’ survival.

Despite the ruling, the Service continues to engage in a number of major initiatives to conserve lesser prairie-chicken populations, including the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan developed and administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI).

According to LPCI Coordinator Jon Ungerer, the delisting will not affect the LPCI partnership’s strong commitment to improving habitat for lesser prairie-chickens.

“LPCI will continue to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners interested in voluntarily improving grassland health using proven conservation methods.” said Ungerer.

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.

Lesser prairie-chicken populations need large tracts of intact, high-quality prairie to survive and reproduce. As such, the lesser prairie-chicken serves as a key indicator of the health of native grasslands, which support regional ranching economies and many native wildlife species, such as migratory birds, scaled quail, pronghorn and mule deer.