The Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s Spot on the Endangered Species List Is in Jeopardy

A Texas judge ruled in favor of a major oil and gas group and reversed the ruling to list the bird.

This year the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has faced a variety of attacks aimed at undoing its recent listing. Now, a lawsuit filed by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and four New Mexico counties has succeeded in doing just that—at least temporarily.

On September 1, a U.S. district judge in Texas vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to designate the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. His ruling stated that prior to listing, the agency failed to follow its own rules for gauging whether existing conservation programs could help stem the bird's decline. “It’s just one more cut into the (agency’s) authority and the efficacy of the ESA,” says Karyn Stockdale, a senior advisor for the National Audubon Society and former director of Audubon New Mexico.

The prairie-chicken, which has an elaborate, chest-puffing mating dance and a call similar to Woody the Woodpecker’s laugh, currently struts on just 16 percent of its historic range. Oil and gas development, wind farms, roads, transmission lines, fences, and other development have threatened these last slivers of existing habitat. And thanks to drought on the southern plains, population numbers plummeted from around 35,000 to 17,616 between 2012 and 2013—which partly explains USFWS's motivation for listing them. “This is an incredibly difficult creature to save,” says Audubon Texas Executive Director Brian Trusty. “It’s really fickle.”

Voluntary conservation efforts have been in the works for years. In the lead-up to the USFWS decision in 2014, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and the five states with Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat finalized a massive plan to protect the bird across its range. But in the end, USFWS decided that it couldn't measure the impact of those programs because not enough landowners and companies had enrolled in them.  

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is best suited to judge whether a species requires a listing . . . Voluntary measures are essential and will continue to play a role in this species’ conservation management, but unfortunately they alone are not sufficient for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken,” Trusty said in a statement for Audubon.

In its decision, USFWS crafted a special rule that left states with a large amount of control over the bird, and granted anyone who had already signed certain voluntary agreements immunity from further ESA restrictions. For some, that meant the agency wasn’t putting up a real fight to save the species.

“It’s one of the most neutered listings I’ve ever seen,” says Ya-Wei Li, senior director for endangered species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. His group is suing USFWS to force more protection, not less. Couple that with likely appeals to the delisting, along with other lawsuits in the works, and there’s a strong possibility the battle is not yet over.  

If the federal court's decision stands, prairie-chickens will be cut off from federal endangered species recovery funds, and landowners will be free to destroy the bird's remaining habitat without consequence. Even WAFWA’s range-wide plan could lose its teeth: Without the looming threat of the listing, there would be no incentive for landowners and industries to participate, Li says. With 100,000 acres and $46 million tied up in voluntary contracts, “there’s potentially a lot to lose.”

Still, participants who walk away would sacrifice their hefty enrollment fees, counters WAFWA Grassland Coordinator Bill Van Pelt. And even if the bird’s federally threatened status evaporates, prairie-chicken declines could trigger yet another listing process, Van Pelt says, prodding more people to sign up. “For us, it’s still business as usual.”

That business may already be producing some results for prairie-chickens: Their numbers have climbed back to 29,000, a 25 percent increase since last year's listing. “You can’t ignore that you had 180 companies modifying their behavior,” Van Pelt argues. But even he admits that drought relief is the most important factor: “We’ve had a lot of rain. That’s what it takes for this bird.”