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Lesser prairie chicken now threatened

March 27, 2014
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the agency announced Thursday. The listing will have a serious effect on oil and natural gas operations in western Oklahoma and the other four states that are home to the bird.

The service said the listing was in response to what it called “the rapid and severe decline” of the chicken. Under the law, a “threatened” listing means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.

“The OIPA and the oil and gas industry as a whole have supported conservation efforts for the prairie chicken, but the truth is declines in the population have very little relationship to oil and gas activity in western Oklahoma,” said Kim Hatfield, OIPA Regulatory Committee chairman.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the prairie chicken population was cut in half from 2012 to 2013 because of severe drought,” Hatfield said. “Drought also had a significant impact on the number of prairie chickens on several occasions over the last century. In each case, populations rebounded when normal rainfall resumed.”

The listing comes after years of scrutiny of the bird, which ranges over parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. USFWS Director Dan Ashe said the chicken is “in dire straits.”

Along with the listing, Fish and Wildlife announced the finalization of a special rule under 4(d) of the ESA that will limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses.

The rule will allow the five range states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ range-wide conservation plan. The range-wide conservation plan was developed by state wildlife agency experts in 2013 with input from a wide variety of stakeholders.

According to the service’s numbers, last year, the range-wide population declined to a record low of 17,616 birds, an almost 50 percent reduction from the 2012 population estimate. The states’ conservation plan has a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide.

“To date, we understand that oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have signed up over 3 million acres of land for participation in the states’ range-wide conservation plan and the NRCS’ Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative,” Ashe said. “We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie chickens.”

The regulatory burden will be another impediment to Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry, which has accounted for one-third of new jobs in the state in recent years and has helped the state come through the Great Recession with less pain than many other states.

“It is unfortunate that Oklahomans will now shoulder a burdensome and expensive regulatory scheme due to a bird that has been impacted more by weather than industry activity,” Hatfield said. “Listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened will have adverse consequences for oil and natural gas producers in western Oklahoma, where a vibrant energy industry has proven to be a job creator and a blessing for landowners whose livelihoods have also been impacted by the weather.”

The final rule to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened and the final special rule will publish in the Federal Register and will be effective 30 days after publication. Copies of the final rules may be found at the service’s website at www.fws.gov/southwest.

 
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