WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Thursday it is placing the lesser prairie chicken on a list of threatened species, a move that could affect oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in five central and southwestern states.
The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a step below "endangered" status and allows for more flexibility in how protections for the bird will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act.
Dan Ashe, the agency's director, said he knows the decision will be unpopular with governors in the five affected states — Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico — but said the agency was following the best science available.
"The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits," Ashe said in an interview. "The bird is in decline and has been in decline for more than a decade."
The prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its colorful feathers and stout build, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat, mostly because of human activity such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines, Ashe said. The bird, which weighs from 1-1/2 to 2 pounds, has also been severely impacted by the region's ongoing drought.
Biologists say a major problem is that prairie chickens fear tall structures, where predators such as hawks can perch and spot them. Wind turbines, electricity transmission towers and drilling rigs are generally the tallest objects on the plains.
Last year, the prairie chicken's population across the five states declined to fewer than 18,000 birds — nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 population estimates.
A conservation plan adopted by the five states has a goal of increasing the population to 67,000 birds.
The listing decision, which will take effect around May 1, includes a special rule that Ashe said will allow officials and private landowners in the five affected states to manage conservation efforts. The rule, which Ashe called unprecedented, specifies that activities such as oil and gas drilling and utility line maintenance that are covered under a five-state conservation plan adopted last year will be allowed to continue.
The plan, developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, establishes that conservation practices carried out through usual agricultural and energy development are not subject to further regulation under the Endangered Species Act.
Governors of the five affected states — including four Republicans — opposed listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act. In a joint statement last year, Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, said their states have all worked with a wide variety of affected groups to develop conservation plans to improve the bird's habitat while "taking into account economic development needs."
All but Hickenlooper are Republicans.
Oklahoma's attorney general filed a lawsuit this month over the Obama administration's decision to settle a lawsuit with an environmental group over the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken and other species.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt claims in the lawsuit that federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups and using "sue and settle" tactics that encourage lawsuits that can be settled on terms favorable to the groups that filed them.
Ashe denied collusion with any group and said the agency hopes to avoid litigation over the listing decision.
Oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have pledged to devote more than 3 million acres in the five states toward conserving the bird's habitat. Most of the acreage was set aside in the aim to prevent the bird from being given federal protection as a threatened species, but Ashe said states and private landowners will play a significant role after the listing decision.
"The key thing is, states will remain in the driver's seat in management and conservation of this bird," he said.
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