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Lesser Prairie Chicken in Line for Federal Protection

Conservationists, Government Settle Listing Litigation

The lesser prairie-chicken, a species that has waited for more than a decade for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), will finally receive its due in 2012. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to address the species for listing next year as part of a landmark settlement agreement with WildEarth Guardians earlier this year. Now the organization has settled separate litigation filed against the agency in 2010 to compel action on the species.

“The road to listing is clear for lesser prairie-chicken,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians. “Few species deserve protection more than this imperiled grouse.”

Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit shinnery oak and sand sagebrush grasslands in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. Although comparable in morphology, plumage, and behavior to greater prairie-chickens, lesser prairie-chickens are smaller and have distinctive courtship displays and vocalizations.

Lesser prairie-chicken range has declined by over 90 percent and its population is among the smallest of North American grouse, variously estimated between 10,000 to more than 50,000 birds (although some experts have warned that fewer than 10,000 individuals may remain). Habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, agriculture, oil and gas development, wind energy production, herbicide use, unnatural fire, and fire suppression are primary threats to the species. Habitat fragmentation from fences and powerlines and disturbance from roads and other activities also affect the bird. The conversion of habitat to cropland on private land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program poses a serious threat to some populations.

Lesser prairie-chickens have been a candidate for protection under the ESA since 1998. WildEarth Guardians reported on the species’ status in 2004, and then again in 2008 on the tenth anniversary of its candidate designation. The Fish and Wildlife Service increased the lesser prairie-chicken’s listing priority number from ‘8’ to ‘2’—the highest rank possible for the species—in 2008, recognizing the imminent threats to its survival.

Prairie Dancer

Like other western grouse, male lesser prairie-chickens engage in a communal breeding display each spring to attract females. Both males and females congregate at breeding grounds (“leks”), where the males strut (“dance”), vocalize (“boom”) and physically confront other males to defend their territories and court females. The male repertoire includes displaying their bright yellow eye combs, inflating their red air sacs, flutter jumping, cackling, and stamping their feet.

Historic Settlement Agreement Advances Protection for Hundreds of Imperiled Species

The lesser prairie-chicken is one of more than 800 species addressed in WildEarth Guardians’ settlement agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, announced on May 10, 2011, and approved by a federal court on September 9, 2011. The agreement obligates the agency to make final listing determinations for 253 species by September 2016, all but one of which are formal candidates for ESA protection. The settlement resolved 12 lawsuits that Guardians filed challenging the government’s failure to timely list species under the act, and attempts to fix a listing program that has failed to function properly since the Reagan Administration. It also schedules petition findings, 12-month listing determinations, and critical habitat designations for more than 600 additional species. In return, WildEarth Guardians consented to dismiss its lawsuits and will refrain from suing Interior over missed listing deadlines for the next six years. The Service met all of its obligations under the agreement for FY 2011, taking action on 730 species.

Lesser Prairie-chicken Settlement Agreement as Filed in Federal Court

Lesser Prairie-chicken Settlement Agreement Approved by the Federal Court


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