Three environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the federal government to more aggressively protect the lesser prairie chicken.
The bird has been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s threatened species list – a level below endangered – which means the species is likely to be in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.
The distinction allows the agency to authorize an “incidental take” of prairie chickens by anyone involved in activities related to such things as oil and gas, agriculture, wind power, cellphone and radio towers, power lines, construction and roads.
“It’s a loophole so big you could drive a truck through it,” said Jason Rylander, a senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, who filed the lawsuit Tuesday with the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians.
The organizations hope to push the agency into moving the bird to the endangered list to stop these exemptions.
“The lesser prairie chicken is a highly imperiled species. It is our responsibility to protect our wildlife,” Rylander told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
A 2013 survey by the Western Assn. of Fish and Wildlife Agencies found that the bird’s population had declined to about 17,600 from about 35,000 in 2012.
The lesser prairie chicken is a medium-sized, gray-brown, round-bodied bird with alternating dark and white bands of plumage and a rounded tail. The males have bright yellow combs above their eyes. Males also have red air sacs and tufts of elongated feathers on each side of their necks that are displayed during courtship.
The bird can be found in southeastern Colorado, the southwestern quarter of Kansas, in limited areas in the Panhandle and northwestern counties of Oklahoma, east-central New Mexico, and in small areas in the northeastern and southwestern corners of the Texas Panhandle.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback criticized the lawsuit, saying it would hurt energy and agriculture production in his state.
“It is not surprising that these extremist environmental organizations would file a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., that effectively attempts to shut down the energy and agriculture economies of western Kansas,” Brownback said in a statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it could not comment on the litigation.