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Feds grant “threatened” status compromise for lesser prairie chickens  

Credit:  Denver Post staff and wire reports | 03/28/2014 | www.denverpost.com ~~

The Obama administration said Thursday it is placing a grassland grouse known as the lesser prairie chicken on a list of threatened species, a move that could affect oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in Colorado and four other central and southwestern states.

The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a step below “endangered” status and allows for more flexibility in how protections for the bird will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act.

Dan Ashe, the agency’s director, said he knows the decision will be unpopular with governors in the five states – Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico – but said the agency was following the best science available.

“The lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits,” Ashe said. “The bird is in decline and has been in decline for more than a decade.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper called the decision “disappointing” and said federal officials should have continued working with states on voluntary efforts to preserve the birds’ habitat.

The prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its colorful neck plume and stout build, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat, mostly because of human activity such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines, Ashe said. The bird, which weighs from 1 ½ to 2 pounds, has also been severely impacted by the region’s ongoing drought.

State data show the chicken numbers have decreased by 50 percent to 17,616 from more than 34,000 in 2012.

The listing decision, which will take effect around May 1, includes a special rule that Ashe said will allow officials and private landowners to manage conservation efforts.

Wildlife advocates bristled at what they are calling a weak compromise.

“The lesser prairie chicken is endangered, period,” said WildEarth Guardians biologist Erik Molvar, who has been studying how the birds adapt to development across the five states.

“This decision on lesser prairie chickens could be a dangerous precedent, a move by the federal government to circumvent Endangered Species Act protection,” he said.

“We have a responsibility to provide them enough space so that they can survive.”

Source:  Denver Post staff and wire reports | 03/28/2014 | www.denverpost.com

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