The Mountain West’s Prairie Chickens Could Receive Federal Protections

May 28, 2021

The lesser prairie chicken could receive federal protections under the Endangered Species Act in parts of the Mountain West. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal Wednesday to list the birds as endangered in eastern New Mexico, and as threatened in its northern reaches that include parts of southeastern Colorado.

Prairie chickens are ground-dwelling relatives of the greater sage grouse, which is common throughout the Mountain West and which the Interior Department declined to protect under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. The birds' historic range overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin, and y as much as 90% of that habitat has been lost.

"The species needs large, intact contiguous grassland," said Clay Nichols, the agency's lead lesser prairie chicken biologist. "And when you look at the current condition of the landscape, you see that it's pretty chopped up. There's a lot of other activities going on."

Michael Robinson is with the Center for Biological Diversity, which was among the organizations that petitioned for the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing the lesser prairie chicken. He said the construction of tall, vertical structures such as drilling rigs and telephone polls can make an area of grassland unlivable for the birds.

"The prairie chicken avoids these areas instinctively because of its vulnerability to raptors, like hawks and eagles, that would perch on them," Robinson said.

He said such structures, combined with other human development and drought conditions made more severe by climate change, have disturbed the species' habitat.

"And as a result, their populations are fragmented and smaller and smaller. There are losses of genetic diversity, and the lesser prairie chicken is on a trajectory toward extinction," Robinson said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service first listed lesser prairie chickens as "threatened" in 2014, but reversed course after a lawsuit from four New Mexico counties and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. Ben Shepperd, the president of that organization, said it will oppose this listing proposal as well.

"It would have dramatically negative impacts on the oil and gas industry," Shepperd said. "I think the restrictions put in place would dramatically slow down oil and gas development, which would be a big problem when you consider that the Permian Basin is the most prolific oil field in North America."

An endangered species listing would limit development that contributes to any "take," or harm caused to the birds and their habitat. That could include new oil and gas development, as well as renewable energy projects in parts of west Texas and eastern New Mexico.

Nichols with the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency would work with energy and agricultural companies, landowners, and other stakeholders.

"We have a lot of folks that would want to talk to them and say, 'Hey, here's how you can avoid impacts to the lesser prairie chicken,'" Nichols said. "And we have other tools available to provide permits for [development] to move forward."

The agency will accept public comment on the proposed listings for 60 days beginning on Tuesday, June 1, and will have one year from that date to make a final decision on the proposal.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.