The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday began the process to consider whether to classify the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
A Fish and Wildlife Service news release blamed habitat loss for the long-term decline in lesser prairie chickens over its historic range, which covers parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
If the species is officially listed, some land-use practices could come under federal scrutiny and hunting for lesser prairie chickens would probably stop.
Steve Swaffer, Kansas Farm Bureau natural resources director, said many members in western Kansas are nervous about possible new regulations if the birds are listed. He said many have questioned why the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to meddle with western Kansas farm practices when it comes to lesser prairie chickens.
“From the (landowners) and Wildlife and Parks people I talk to, the birds are still moving north and the numbers are good,” Swaffer said. “That’s not by accident. It shows that things like our CRP program and how landowners are managing their grasslands are already helping the birds.”
State biologists agree. Jim Pitman, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism small game coordinator, said the birds are doing well in Kansas, where their range runs roughly from Greensburg west and south of I-70.
“Since the mid-’90s we’ve about tripled what was then their known range in Kansas,” Pitman said. “Last spring it was estimated there were 37,000 lesser (rangewide) and Kansas probably has 30,000 of those.”
But some think the birds and their habitat deserve more protection. Two years ago the Kansas Ornithological Society tried – but failed – to get lesser prairie chickens on Kansas’ threatened species list.
“We thought the species was in serious trouble,” said Chuck Otte, KOS past president. “They say we have less than 40,000 left in the country, and we have (single) flocks of crows and blackbirds in Kansas with more birds than that.
“We really need to protect what pockets of habitat we have left.”
Lesli Gray, Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist, said the process for determining whether the birds get listed could take until Sept. 30, 2013. At the end of that time, the agency could officially list the species as threatened or determine such a listing isn’t justified.
Fish and Wildlife will take public comments about the species and management programs for about the next 90 days. A public meeting is planned for Feb. 7 in Garden City.
Fish and Wildlife officials will also review plans by state wildlife, agricultural, energy and conservation groups hoping to bolster lesser prairie chicken numbers enough to keep the birds from being listed. The news release said prairie chicken habitat has been reduced by about 84 percent from historic levels.
Pitman said the Kansas population had climbed steadily over about the past 20 years, except for recent declines from two years of serious drought in western Kansas. He estimated the population is down about 60 percent because of the drought.
“But they’re just like pheasants and quail,” Pitman said. “When we get some rain, they’ll be right back. We still have the habitat.”
Like most prairie grouse, lesser prairie chickens only nest on pristine prairie. Prairie lands being turned into crop fields or heavily grazed pastures have been a problem in some areas.
Disturbances like oil and gas exploration, wind farms, pipelines and transmission lines have taken large chunks of habitat. Some studies show female lesser prairie chickens will not nest within up to a half-mile from such unnatural structures.
Pitman said Kansas lesser prairie chickens have benefited greatly from the on-going federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to plant and maintain prairie grasses on their lands.
The concept of listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened is not new.
In 1998 the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled the species was worthy of consideration of the listing, but said other species were more deserving of their efforts. They were listed as a two on a scale with 10 as the rating for species most in need of listing.
About two years ago they were raised to an eight rating.
Gray said hunting is almost always halted when a species is placed on the threatened list. She couldn’t predict how a listing might impact land use policies. Much could depend on local lesser prairie chicken populations and habitat trends.
She said the agency does its best to work with farmers and ranchers.
“We know the importance of maintaining working farms and ranches on the landscape,” Gray said. “We know how important they are to the local communities.”
She said several groups are already working to help farmers and ranchers sign-up for approved land use practices that benefit lesser prairie chickens while sustaining good agricultural practices.
If listed, Swaffer, the Farm Bureau official, said he would like to see a program where industries like oil and gas, wind farms and transmission lines provide funding for landowners to improve lesser prairie chicken habitat on their lands.
“Those kinds of industries are most likely to have the hammer come down on them first,” Swaffer said. “I’d think they’d be willing to work with landowners to improve habitat.”
Still, he said, landowners over a large chunk of Kansas will anxiously be awaiting next year’s ruling, and possible new rules for land use.
“Kansas has most of the birds and habitat, and I guess that’s a blessing,” Swaffer said. “But if the birds do get listed, it could be a curse.”