Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 11, 2022

Contact:

Michael Robinson, (575) 313-7017, michaelr@biologicaldiversity.org

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Lesser Prairie Chicken From Extinction

Grassland Habitats Threatened by Fossil Fuel Drilling, Agriculture, Drought

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— The Center for Biological Diversity notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today that it would sue the agency for failing to protect lesser prairie chickens under the Endangered Species Act if it did not do so within 60 days.

“Lesser prairie chickens have already waited nearly 30 years for protection, all the while losing habitat to oil, gas and other development,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center. “Every new day without protection brings this rare dancing bird closer to extinction.”

In June 2021 the Service proposed placing lesser prairie chickens living in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, northwest Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle on the list of threatened species. It also proposed placing lesser prairie chickens in West Texas and eastern New Mexico on the endangered list. These two listed populations would each have their own recovery actions and timelines. But the Service didn’t finalize the proposal by June 2022, as it was required to do.

The lesser prairie chicken’s decline to a tiny fraction of its original numbers resulted from the degradation and fragmentation of the vast southern Great Plains. Conversion to cropland, cattle grazing, the building of powerlines and telephone poles, oil and gas development, and incursion of woodlands — as well as drought and high temperatures linked to global warming — all harm the bird.

Lesser prairie chickens instinctively stay far from vertical structures, including powerlines, telephone poles and drilling rigs, that are used as perches by raptors that prey on them. Construction of any of these structures results in a much greater loss of habitat than from the immediate physical footprint.

Prairie chickens are also threatened by higher temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions. Increasingly, eggs and hatchlings are not able to weather the heat.

“Fossil fuels are a double threat to the lesser prairie chicken,” said Robinson. “They’re a leading cause of habitat loss, and the main cause of the warming that’s making the world increasingly inhospitable for these special birds, and all of us, too.”

Background

Male lesser prairie chickens make special booming vocalizations, inflate reddish-orange air sacs, and elaborately strut to impress females in the spring at gathering grounds known as leks.

The Center’s predecessor organization, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, petitioned to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species in 1995. Over the ensuing quarter-century, the Center repeatedly sued the Service for delaying evaluating whether the bird should be protected.

In 2014 the Service finally listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened. But the following year, the oil and gas industry successfully challenged the listing in Midland, Texas based on a poorly implemented and largely ineffective conservation agreement.

In 2016 the Center and its allies petitioned for an endangered listing of lesser prairie chickens. The subsequent lawsuit by the Center and allies, and comments submitted in April 2021, led to last year’s proposed rule, which faced opposition from the oil and gas industry.

Lesser_Prairie_Chicken_FWS_FPWC.jpg
Lesser prairie chicken. Credit: USFWS. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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