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Group Marks First Passenger Pigeon Day

Lawsuit Filed over Federal Failure to Protect Rare Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Phoenix, AZ WildEarth Guardians is commemorating the passenger pigeon today by calling for greater legal safeguards for imperiled birds under the Endangered Species Act. September 1 marks the 96th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the last of which, “Martha,” died on this date in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Martha and kin did not have the protection of the Endangered Species Act to prevent their extinction. While some endangered birds in the United States, such as the whooping crane, bald eagle, and California condor, have benefited from the Endangered Species Act, others are recognized as imperiled but are not protected under the Act. Until a species is formally protected (listed) under the law, it cannot benefit from the Endangered Species Act’s stringent legal safeguards.

“The Endangered Species Act is the most effective law for protecting and recovering imperiled species, bar none,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians. “We are flirting with catastrophe when we delay listing imperiled species under the law.”

In recognition of the passenger pigeon’s legacy, WildEarth Guardians is filing litigation today to protect the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act. One of 250 species formally awaiting listing, this dwindling prairie grouse has been a “candidate” for protection for more than 12 years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service elevated the bird’s listing priority to the most urgent category in recent years in recognition of the grave threats it faces.

The lesser prairie-chicken occurs in shinnery oak and sand sagebrush grasslands in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Their population has declined precipitously and only 10,000-30,000 birds are believed to exist. The species’ current range, representing only 8 percent of historic distribution, is being pummeled by livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, and escalating wind energy development.

“Few western birds deserve listing more than the lesser prairie-chicken,” said Salvo. “How much more mismanagement must they endure before the federal government will act to protect the species?”

Unfortunately, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, our nation’s top official for deciding which species are added to the threatened and endangered species list, has failed to protect the lesser prairie-chicken. The federal listing program is stagnant, with only one new U.S. species listed in the lower 48 states since Secretary Salazar was appointed. In his annual reviews of whether to list the lesser prairie-chicken, Mr. Salazar has contended that, while listing is appropriate, protection for this beleaguered bird is “precluded” by higher priorities. Guardians’ lawsuit today charges that the Secretary is derelict in his duties for listing very few species, regardless of their priority.

Secretary Salazar’s inaction on protecting imperiled birds is notable given his announcement shortly after taking his post at Interior: “From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells. We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.”

Mr. Salazar’s announcement was made at the March 2009 announcement of “The U.S. State of the Birds” report. The lesser prairie-chicken is identified as a “bird in trouble.” The report further noted that “grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining birds in North America,” with more than half (55 percent) of all grassland birds in decline. The American Bird Conservancy, a contributor to that report, recommends listing the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act.

Watch our brief video of the lesser-prairie chicken here.


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