US grants shelter to rare Midwestern birds as prairie suffers

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — The U.S. government announced Thursday the protection of two populations of a rare prairie bird that’s found in parts of the Midwest, including one of the most productive oil and gas fields in the country.

The lesser prairie chicken’s range includes part of the oil-rich Permian Basin along the New Mexico-Texas state line and extends into parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The bird’s habitat, a species of grouse, has been reduced over about 90% of its historical range, officials said.

“The decline of the prairie chicken is a sign that our native grasslands and prairies are under threat,” said Amy Lueders, regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest.

The crow-sized landbirds are known for springtime courtship rituals that involve extravagant dances by the males while they make a cacophony of cackling, cackling and booming noises. It used to be assumed that their number was in the millions. Now polls showthe five-year average population hovers around the entire range at about 30,000 birds.

For decades, environmentalists had sought greater federal protection. They consider the species critically endangered due to oil and gas exploration, cattle grazing, agriculture, and construction of roads and power lines.

Republicans in Congress said no greater protections were needed and the government should instead rely on voluntary protection efforts already in place.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision affects the southern capercaillie population of New Mexico and the southern reaches of the Texas Panhandle, where they are now listed as vulnerable, and their northern range, where they have been given less serious “Vulnerable” status. The regulation will come into effect at the end of January.

Landowners and the oil and gas industry say they’re having success with voluntary conservation programs aimed at protecting habitat and increasing bird numbers.

However, population estimates show the southern areas are showing lower resilience and may have as few as 5,000 birds left, with estimates falling to just 1,000 birds after drought conditions in 2015 and 2022, officials said.

The federal government in 2014 classified the bird as an endangered species, but was forced to reverse that move two years later after court rulings found the agency had failed to give adequate consideration to voluntary conservation efforts.

Landowners and oil companies already participating in the voluntary conservation programs will not be affected by Thursday’s decision as they have taken steps to protect the habitat, officials said. It prevents activities that result in the loss or degradation of existing habitats.

More than 9,375 square miles (24,280 square kilometers) were covered by conservation agreements last spring.

A 2014 Kansas law states that the state has sole authority to regulate the smaller prairie chicken — along with the larger, darker, and more common greater prairie chicken — and their habitats in Kansas. It empowered the attorney general or district attorneys to sue any federal attempt to enforce safeguards.

“In its final rule, the US Fish and Wildlife Service first commended landowners’ voluntary efforts to increase Kansas’ lower populations of prairie chickens and then unilaterally decided that the federal government is better equipped to address these local areas,” he said Republican Representative from Kansas. Tracey Mann of Kansas said in a statement.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said conservation efforts for the animals were “great” but came too late for prairie chickens in some areas. Robinson’s group last month filed a lawsuit against the government for being five months late in publishing a final decision. The first application to protect the bird was made in 1995.

“We wish the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection by 27 years because acting more quickly would have resulted in many more places with many fewer live prairie chickens today,” he said.