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Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the lesser prairie-chicken (LPC), a game bird, as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The listing resulted from multi-species settlement agreements entered into by the FWS and two animal rights groups, WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity in 2011. The settlement agreements eliminated the FWS’s ability to continue to make a “warranted but precluded” or “candidate” finding for the LPC and 259 other species.
A species listed as a “candidate” species does not become subject to the same prohibitions and restrictions that apply to endangered or threatened species. For example, the take of members of a candidate species, whether intentional or accidental, is not illegal. For this reason, a species’ “candidate” status allows states and stakeholders a variety of opportunities to conserve the species without interfering with business and recreational activities in the species’ range. Because of the settlement agreements, the FWS had to propose a rule to list the species regardless of extensive new conservation efforts developed by the states and other stakeholders.
The FWS believed that the listing, which went in to effect April 10, 2014, was necessary due “to the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie-chicken.” A special rule that accompanies the listing will provide the affected states with significant responsibility for managing the LPC. The rule also attempts to provide regulatory certainty to landowners and businesses enrolled in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ LPC Range Wide Conservation Plan and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.
In Kansas, officials fear that federal oversight of efforts to manage the LPC population could impose limits on agricultural, oil and natural gas, and other productive activities. The FWS justified its listing decision by explaining that the states with LPC populations, including Kansas, had fewer than 18,000 lesser prairie chickens in 2013, representing a 50 percent decrease from the previous year. Kansas officials explain that the population variations represent natural fluctuations due to drought, not insufficient state efforts. All the states with LPC populations, including Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas worry that conservation efforts already in place will likely be wasted and that stakeholders will be frustrated by the listing.
Many believe the FWS, in determining to list the LPC, should have at least considered whether the efforts made by the states and stakeholders had lessened the alleged threats to the species. This could have led to a continued “warranted but precluded” finding that would have given these efforts more time to have an impact on the status of the species and could possibly have avoided the need to list altogether. This finding also would allow the FWS to devote its extremely limited resources to other species with greater need for listing protections.
While hundreds of species have been listed due to the settlements, the LPC is the first game species to be impacted by one of these agreements. Others are on the way. By September 2015, the settlements will force the FWS to propose rules to list the greater sage grouse (an even wider ranging species) and the New England cottontail, unless the FWS concludes that these proposed listings are no longer warranted.
Listing decisions should be based solely on sound science and wildlife management. If political interests drive these decisions, wildlife conservation will surely lose out. Conservation plans and efforts already in place for the LPC should have forestalled its listing, but because of the settlements they could not. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will be sustained now that the FWS has listed the LPC and the yoke of ESA restrictions discourages the stakeholders who otherwise might have supported LPC conservation.
Photo Courtesy of: Craig K Lorenz via Getty Images
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