The lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) dancing or “drumming” as part of a mating display in northern Oklahoma. (Nattapong Assalee / Getty Images)
Federal wildlife officials have listed the iconic lesser prairie chicken as threatened across its Kansas habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.
The bird is in even more dire straits in the southwest, where it will be listed as endangered.
The listing comes after years of fighting by wildlife advocates to protect the bird, which can be found in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The Center for Biological Diversity sued in October, saying USFWS was moving too slowly after proposing the listing a year and a half ago.
The lesser prairie chicken, which lives in prairie grass and shrubs in western Kansas, once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But U.S. wildlife officials estimate 90% of the habitat the birds once inhabited is gone and only about 32,000 lesser prairie chickens remain.
“The lesser prairie chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril,” USFWS’s southwest regional director, Amy Lueders, said in a news release. “These habitats support a diversity of wildlife and are valued for water quality, climate resilience, grazing, hunting and recreation.”
The listing means USFWS believes the birds are near extinction in their southern range — New Mexico and the southwest Texas Panhandle — and are at risk of becoming endangered in the northern stretch of their home — Kansas, Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle.
USFWS said it will work with states to determine areas of critical habitat for the birds.
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Protecting the lesser prairie chicken has been a source of controversy in Kansas for years. Lesser prairie chickens thrive in swaths of unbroken tracts of native grasses. Efforts to conserve habitat for the birds can be seen as a threat to farmers, ranchers and energy producers.
Kansas’ U.S. senators, Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall, and U.S. Rep. Tracy Mann condemned the USFWS decision in a news release, saying it would harm farmers, ranchers and energy producers.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement is disappointing and a reminder that this administration favors government micromanagement of agriculture and heavy handed regulation in their war against energy producers instead of working with landowners to promote continued voluntary conservation efforts,” Marshall said.
USFWS has worked with nearly 900 landowners to conserve prairie for the birds on about 1.6 million acres, according to the news release.
Wildlife officials previously listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in 2014 only to see that reversed by court order.
In 2019, three conservation groups sued the federal government to force a decision on the lesser prairie chicken. The groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, claimed the Department of the Interior and USFWS were in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to make a ruling on a 2016 petition to list the birds.
Lesser prairie chickens are iconic for their unique mating ritual. Each spring, males dance in an effort to attract hens. Michael Robinson, the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior conservation advocate, said in a statement that “this is terrific news for these fascinating birds and the overlooked and much-exploited prairies where they live.”
“We wish that the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection for 27 years, because quicker action would have meant a lot more lesser prairie chickens alive in a lot more places today,” Robinson said. “We’ll watch the next steps closely to ensure there are also strong protections for the wild places where these birds live.”
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