Despite years of work, planning, research, negotiation and boots-on-the-ground effort by landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has opted to list the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
However, in a nod to all that work and cooperation by landowners, the listing takes into account previous conservation plans that landowners voluntarily have undertaken to provide habitat for the bird.
“In response to the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie-chicken, FWS announced the final listing of the species as threatened under the ESA, as well as a final special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that will limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing,” FWS said in a news release.
“In recognition of the significant and ongoing efforts of states and landowners to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken, this unprecedented use of a special 4(d) rule will allow the five range states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado) to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (WAFWA) range-wide conservation plan,” FWS says.
“This range-wide conservation plan was developed by state wildlife agency experts in 2013 with input from a wide variety of stakeholders. The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation.”
Ben Weinheimer, Texas Cattle Feeders Association vice president, responded that everyone involved with lesser prairie-chicken conservation planning efforts over the past several years was hopeful that FWS would have placed more emphasis on the success of those efforts and make a determination that listing of the species was not warranted.
“Unfortunately, the extended drought throughout the range of the LEPC lesser prairie-chicken and declining population of the species weighed heavily in FWS’s decision,” he says. “It’s difficult to remain optimistic when FWS lists a species as threatened; however, now it is even more important that we focus on conservation programs that benefit landowners and increase the population of the lesser prairie-chicken to allow the species to be delisted.”
However, some environmental groups insist the listing leaves too many loopholes, reports the Amarillo Globe News. “The lesser prairie-chicken is endangered, period,” Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said in a written statement. “Yet instead of protecting the bird from serious threats, FWS exempts anyone who signs on to entirely voluntary state or local conservation plans, undermining the very purpose of protecting imperiled species under the ESA.”
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Taking a different approach, however, David Festa with the Environmental Defense Fund, says, “It’s a sad day when a species has to get listed. The bright spot is that FWS has opened the door to innovative approaches for species conservation, as demonstrated by its commitment to range-wide planning. By sharing the responsibility for species protection with the states and private landowners, the Service has increased the potential for recovery of the lesser prairie-chicken. This is a big evolution in how ESA gets implemented.
"We believe more can, and should, be done to engage private landowners. I am hopeful that through modern species conservation, measures like habitat exchanges currently under consideration with FWS, we can meet the challenge of feeding and fueling a growing population without harming the planet in the process."
Copies of the final rules may be found at the FWS website.
You can see the FWS news release here.
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