Several reasons why this icon of the plains deserves full protection under the Endangered Species Act
The long debate over the lesser prairie-chicken’s conservation status has just produced another plot twist. In July, after nearly two decades of delayed decision-making, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), following court orders, revoked the bird’s “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This move was about following the letter of the law – not necessarily the best conservation science. And while it did deprive the bird of needed protection, we hope that now that this legal obligation has been met, FWS will re-evaluate the species for listing once more. In fact, Defenders along with Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, filed a legal petition last week to the agency requesting that the lesser prairie-chicken be relisted as “endangered.”
There is no time to waste: The lesser prairie-chicken faces a multitude of threats throughout its range in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. Climate change is exacerbating problems caused by energy development, cropland conversion, grassland fragmentation and heavy livestock grazing that strips the grass cover these birds need to hide from natural predators.
Here are seven reasons this bird is too special for us to let it go extinct, and deserves full protection under the ESA:
- This icon of the Southern Plains once numbered in the millions across the West. Its numbers today represent just 13 percent of its historical population, occupying less than 17 percent of its original habitat.
- This magnificent species is on the front lines of energy development. Full protection under the ESA will provide necessary safeguards for the bird as development continues.
- Helping the lesser prairie-chicken also helps other imperiled species. The prairie is a rich landscape full of uniquely American wildlife. Because the lesser prairie-chicken has such a wide range, conserving its habitat will also protect other prairie species like the dunes sagebrush lizard.
- This bird is culturally important. The bird’s distinctive “booming” call, made with the orange air sacs on males’ necks, and their fascinating spring mating dance inspired Native American customs and town festivals throughout the region. These practices are suffering as the prairie-chicken population continues to fall.
- Economies can suffer if these birds disappear. Wildlife-based recreation is a big business across our country, generating over $144 billion. But if the animals that drive these attractions vanish, so does the revenue for local communities. In some places, this is already happening. Milnesand, New Mexico has not held its annual prairie-chicken festival since 2012; there are not enough birds left to sustain tourism in the area.
- ESA listing is the last, best chance to keep this species from extinction. The current, voluntary plan for the lesser prairie-chicken developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies does not go far enough to conserve the species habitat and help it to recover.
- We have a chance to make this a success story. The bald eagle nearly went extinct in the 20th century and faced many threats: habitat loss, overhunting of its prey and pesticide contamination. But with coordinated efforts and lots of love—along with a federal endangered listing— our national bird has made a spectacular recovery. We have a chance for a similar success story with the lesser prairie-chicken, but only if we grant this species the level of protection it needs.