The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week announced the designation of the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but implemented a final special rule at the same time that is expected to limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from the listing.
A "threatened" listing is a step below "endangered" under the ESA and allows for more flexibility in how the Act's protections are implemented, FWS said.
Range Wide Plan and USDA conservation practices
The special rule will allow Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas 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' Range Wide Plan.
The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service's 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.
"Working through the WAFWA range-wide conservation plan, the states remain in the driver's seat for managing the species – more than has ever been done before – and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements," commented U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
Critics uncertain about plan
Two governors of affected states, Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, each criticized the listing.
"This is an overreach on the part of the federal government, and I am concerned about the effect this designation will have on Kansans and the Kansas economy. We are looking at possible responses on this issue," a statement from Gov. Brownback's office said.
Fallin, however, credited the FWS with understanding the scope of the Range Wide Plan, which she said was developed based on the Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Plan.
"The potential impact of this listing, without the Range Wide Plan, could have resulted in damaging hits to our state's economy, particularly our energy and agriculture industries. With a large amount of conservation already taking place, my administration will take all steps to continue to implement this plan and work with the Service to de-list this species as soon as possible," she noted in a statement.
Lesser prairie-chicken's habitat loss
Once abundant across much of the five range states, the lesser prairie-chicken's historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84%. This is due largely to habitat loss and fragmentation and the ongoing drought in the southern Great Plains, FWS says.
"To date, we understand that oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have signed up over 3 million acres of land for participation in the states' range-wide conservation plan and the NRCS' Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative," said Ashe. "We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie-chickens."
Current conservation efforts are similar to a recovery plan, something that the Service normally prepares after a species' listing, they said. This early identification of a strategy to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken is likely to speed its eventual delisting.
The final rule to list the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened and the final special rule will publish in the Federal Register and will be effective 30 days after publication. Copies of the final rules may be found at the Service's website at http://www.fws.gov/southwest