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Report Shows Continued Decline of Rare Prairie Grouse
Denver, CO. - WildEarth Guardians released a report today entitled, "Lesser Prairie-Chicken: A Decade in Purgatory," marking the tenth anniversary of the lesser prairie-chicken' designation as a "candidate species" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The report documents continued declines and threats to this rare prairie grouse.
The lesser prairie-chicken occurs in less than 10 percent of its historic range, and the bird's populations have continued to decline in many areas within its remaining habitat, including its last stronghold in Colorado (the Comanche National Grassland) and parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico. The bird has steadily declined in the northeast panhandle of Texas since 2003. The lesser prairie-chicken has experienced unstable population trends in the remainder of its range.
"The lesser prairie-chicken has been stuck in the emergency waiting room for ten years. The government has acknowledged it deserves federal protection, but has failed to provide this rare and declining bird with urgently needed care under the Endangered Species Act," stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announced on June 9, 1998 that the lesser prairie-chicken warranted federal ESA protection, but was precluded by higher priorities. The Service found that the species' range had declined by at least 90 percent and was threatened by oil and gas development, livestock grazing, herbicide use, drought, and other threats in its five-state range in the southern Great Plains (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas).
The WildEarth Guardians report shows that the lesser prairie-chicken has experienced new and increasing threats since the Service's finding a decade ago, and ESA protection is now more urgent than ever. New threats include the conversion of vast areas of Conservation Reserve Program lands to cropland, extended drought, recently documented impacts from climate change, and potential devastation from West Nile virus.
Some land uses, such as oil and gas drilling, which are adverse to the bird, are occurring on federal lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service. Even when the Service raises concerns about federal actions harming the lesser prairie-chicken, the agency is often ignored. If the lesser prairie-chicken was listed under the ESA, Service recommendations on managing prairie-chicken habitat would become mandatory and legally enforceable by citizens.
"There is a huge difference between ESA candidacy and actual listing. Dozens of species have gone extinct while candidates, but the ESA has been 99% effective at preventing extinction of listed species. If the lesser prairie-chicken was listed under the ESA, the Service and the public could compel state and federal agencies to better manage the bird's habitat," stated Rosmarino.
Private land habitat is also important to the lesser prairie-chicken's future. Commenting on the problem of Conservation Reserve Program lands being converted to crop agriculture, one Service official exclaimed, "So much for prairie chickens!"
The WildEarth Guardians report describes how the BLM leased the heart of the lesser prairie-chicken's habitat in Colorado to oil and gas development in 2006 and 2007; new scientific reports from Kansas demonstrate that vertical structures (such as powerlines and oil rigs) and roads that accompany fossil fuel development reduce available prairie-chicken habitat; the impact of lower precipitation and higher temperatures from climate change on lesser-prairie chickens; and extensive wind development planned in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, which degrades lesser prairie-chicken habitat.
To remain viable, lesser prairie-chicken populations require approximately 25,000 acres of intact habitat - nearly 40 square miles. Such large blocks of habitat are becoming nearly impossible to find in the bird's remaining range.