The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing listing two distinct population segments (DPS) of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency will list the Southern DPS covering New Mexico and the southwest Texas panhandle as "endangered." It will list the Northern DPS covering southeastern Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and the northeast Texas panhandle as "threatened."
The listings come after a thorough review of the best available science, the agency said in a press release.
“The loss of America’s native grasslands and prairies of the southern Great Plains has resulted in steep declines for the lesser prairie-chicken and other grassland birds,” Amy Lueders, the service’s regional director, said.
National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Public Lands Council are opposed to the decision, saying restrictive ESA protections disincentivize continuation of decades-long public-private conservation partnerships.
"After years of successful, voluntary conservation efforts and the development of meaningful partnerships, the ESA designation of the lesser prairie-chicken is severely disappointing," said Kaitlynn Glover, PLC executive director and NCBA executive director of natural resources.
"The scientific data supports our belief that voluntary conservation work — led by producers — is the most effective way to provide stability for the birds and their habitat,” she said.
Ranchers have kept up their end of conservation agreements with the federal government, and this designation tells those private landowners that their considerable private investment doesn't count, she said.
“This is a terrible message to send at the very moment when the administration is seeking to enlist our industry's help with a broad slew of conservation goals that can only succeed with strong public-private partnerships," she said.
To date millions of acres of land have been enrolled in voluntary conservation measures across the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. Great strides have been made, but there is still much to do to ensure viable populations, Lueders said.
“The service will continue to closely partner with diverse stakeholders across the lesser prairie-chicken’s range to restore this iconic species,” she said.
But NCBA and PLC contend the designation signals a reversal of sorts from the agency’s prior support for the successful voluntary partnerships.
“ESA designations severely limit voluntary conservation efforts that ranchers might otherwise take to protect a species. Partnerships with private landowners and producers are essential, as the habitat for many species like the lesser prairie chicken falls on private lands,” Glover said.
“While the ESA is an important recovery tool for truly imperiled species, using this kind of listing determination undercuts the years of important, successful, voluntary conservation that will be the most durable for the bird long term,” she said.
The agency is proposing a rule under ESA Section 4(d) for the northern population that provides protection but also provides exemptions for continuation of routine agricultural practices on and for the application of prescribed burns.
“Based on our current review, the provisions in the proposed 4(d) are primarily relevant for cropland,” Glover said.
“While we are still reviewing the 4(d) rule, we know an ESA listing will be limiting for the ranchers who do vital conservation work, undermining the success of ESA listings,” she said.