SANTA FE, N.M. – The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its decision today to list two distinct populations of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken under the Endangered Species Act. The species is managed separately in the northern and southern parts of its range, which includes portions of five states (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico).
“This decision is essential if we hope to save the Lesser Prairie-Chicken from extinction,” said Jon Hayes, executive director of Audubon Southwest and vice president at the National Audubon Society. “Many people have worked through voluntary measures and agreements to avoid this moment but as we all know, you don’t put food on the table with effort, and what we have done hasn’t been enough.”
Since formal nationwide bird monitoring began in the 1960s, Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations have declined by 97 percent across their range. This decline is one of the most precipitous among all bird life in the U.S. and will ultimately lead to extinction if not addressed. More than 20,000 Audubon members along with 60 local chapters across 20 states submitted letters to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking for increased protections. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits anyone from harming an endangered species either directly or indirectly, it requires the development of a recovery plan for the species, and it generally requires the identification of critical habitat.
“Ensuring the existence of this bird for future generations will come at a cost, but these costs do not have to be accompanied by conflict,” said Hayes. “Activities like energy production will have to be curtailed in the areas designated as critical habitat for the bird, but there are ways for the agency and industry to work together.”
For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken steps to create an Incidental Take Permit that energy companies can apply for allowing them to mitigate their predicted impact by restoring and protecting the Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat. With rigorous accounting, we can ensure that mitigation helps restore the bird’s populations. This idea of Conservation Banking could prove to be the path forward that will help to protect the bird while also accommodating the needs of industry.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has also worked to ensure flexibility for landowners and land managers by offering regulatory certainty through voluntary programs for agriculture and sustainable ranching. New federal investments and incentives for landowners resulting from today’s decision will also make our grassland healthier, improve the infiltration of groundwater, sequester carbon, and make the rangeland more resilient overall.
“Whether you’re a cow or a bird, you need healthy grass and soil,” said Hayes. “This is our opportunity to not only save this species, but do so while also bolstering rural economies and addressing the climate crisis.”
Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program supports market incentives for ranchers that manage their rangeland for bird habitat. Innovative partnerships like this provide a win-win solution for birds, like the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and beef producers.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken was first proposed for ESA listing in 1995. In the more than 25 years since that original petition, the bird has been through a roller coaster of listing decisions, court orders, and failed recovery efforts, all while the populations continue to plummet.
Read more from Jon Hayes: Together We can Save the Lesser Prairie-Chicken
The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Learn more at www.audubon.org and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @audubonsociety.
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