The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday it is considering formally listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.
The announcement begins a yearlong review that will include public meetings in four of the five states where the member of the prairie grouse family lives.
Fish and Wildlife said it made the decision based on evidence the bird and its habitat are in decline.
“The lesser prairie chicken is a species that is in peril and has been for some time,” said Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe.
The chicken’s range includes parts of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. Nearly 85 percent of its grass and brush-land habitat has been affected by ranching and farming. Most of its habitat is on private land.
Ranchers, farmers and wind farm operators worry about a listing because it could increase regulations. Wind turbines, oil wells and fences are among the culprits scientists say have caused the chicken’s decline.
Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said the listing “could significantly disrupt traditional and renewable American energy production and delivery, as well as agriculture.”
“Energy projects, including renewable wind energy, would be placed in jeopardy, facing inevitable delay and uncertainty due to new layers of regulatory red tape,” Hastings said in a statement Friday.
Joey Meibergen, of Johnston Grain, who has studied the issue, said he was concerned mostly about “the threat of having more regulations being forced down these guys’ throats,” referring to farmers and ranchers.
With the ongoing drought, making a living in agriculture is hard enough, Meibergen said.
“We don’t need more regulations making it harder,” he said.
Lesser prairie chickens, Meibergen said, prefer open areas. They stay away from structures – including trees, fences and buildings – where predators might hide. With an endangered listing, the potential is there for the federal government to tell farmers and ranchers they must take down such things as fences and reduce cattle numbers to protect habitat.
Federal authorities sought to ease those concerns.
“We know that we cannot restore, protect and reconnect the habitat … without the help of private landowners,” said Benjamin Tuggle, Fish and Wildlife’s southwest region director.
Conservationists will work to “keep farming and ranching families on the land,” he said.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said the decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened” was better than a stronger listing.
“While I believe the decision to classify the lesser prairie chicken as ‘threatened’ is overly cautious, the fact that it was not listed as ‘endangered’ is a sign the federal government appreciates our efforts to protect this animal and its habitat,” Fallin said in a prepared statement. “I’m hopeful the lesser prairie chicken conservation plan already being put into practice by wildlife managers in Oklahoma and our neighboring states will eventually lead to the species receiving a ‘not warranted’ decision from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would not place any restrictions on the species.”
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., also was encouraged.
“Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision on the lesser prairie chicken is great news for Oklahoma,” said Inhofe, who is ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “Given the tough odds that we faced originally, a proposed listing as ‘threatened’ is the best possible outcome at this time because it brings us one step closer to achieving a ‘not-warranted’ decision in the coming months.”
A federal listing of “endangered” comes with more punitive restrictions that would harm economic activity like wind power development, Fallin said. In Oklahoma, the state has invested $26 million since 1996 in conservation efforts in over 563,000 acres in an attempt to protect the lesser prairie chicken.
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, working with a variety of industry, has developed the Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Action Plan. The plan is designed to improve habitat while taking into account the economic development needs of the habitat area including agriculture, oil and gas development, and transportation.
Clay Pope, executive director of Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, touted the cooperative efforts to protect habitat of the lesser prairie chicken.
“When we work together cooperatively,” he said, “we can find solutions.”
OACD has received a $90,000 grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help protect prairie chicken habitat.
“We are really excited about the opportunity this grant from NFWF provides to us to continue our efforts to help landowners protect the lesser prairie chicken,” said Sarah Pope, OACD programs director. “These funds will help us continue to build programs that not only help landowners undertake work to protect wildlife habitat but also help them to profit from good natural resource stewardship.”
The grant will allow OACD to hire additional staff to provide assistance to landowners in areas of critical prairie chicken habitat to help develop conservation plans, Pope said. It also will help coordinate activities among local conservation districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and wildlife agencies.
Review meetings will be in February in Woodward; Garden City, Kan.; Lubbock, Texas; and Roswell, N.M.
The lesser prairie chicken has feathered feet and a stout build. Males display brilliant yellow-orange eye combs and reddish-purple air sacs during courtship displays.
A final decision on the chicken listing is expected by November 2013.
Associate Editor Kevin Hassler and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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