The listing decision was vacated by a judge on procedural grounds. However, the concerns and threats that led to the initial decision to list the species as threatened remain. Furthermore, the jurisdictional uncertainty regarding responsibility for the species has effectively hindered conservation efforts. The 31 contributors combined to create 18 chapters in the over page volume. The history chapter by Randy Rodgers provides a comprehensive look back into the environmental conditions, conservation initiatives, and policy decisions that preceded the current status of the species.
William Van Pelt simplifies the complex legal situation and outlines a comprehensive conservation response to the legal status of the species. The population dynamics, including a reconstruction of population fluctuations during the past years for each ecoregion, is provided by Edward Garton and coauthors. Randy DeYoung and Damon Williford provide a novel perspective on the population genetics for prairie grouse concentrating on the lesser prairie-chicken.
Known and potential diseases that may affect lesser prairie-chickens are described by Markus Peterson.
The remainder of the Ecology section of the volume includes chapters on predation by Clint Boal, habitat by David Haukos and Jennifer Zavaleta, and harvest by Haukos and others. The section on Emerging Issues includes chapters on management strategies for public versus private land by R. The heart of the volume is the Conservation and Management section where each of the four ecoregions are described in a comprehensive fashion leading to potential management strategies and unique approaches to conservation.
Leks keep 'em booming!
The volume concludes with a synthesis chapter by Christian Hagen and R. Dwayne Elmore that poses difficult and thoughtful questions regarding the future of the species. Finally, the decision came in: The judge had sided with the oil and gas industry, ruling to de-list the lesser prairie-chicken. The decision surprised parties on both sides.
And it marked yet another pivotal moment in a battle over a bird that had been going on for decades. Deep in the heart of oil and gas country, the plight of the lesser prairie-chicken has, in that time, come to offer a unique window into the inner workings of the Endangered Species Act—its potential and its limitations. Because the bird lives primarily on private land, it also raises questions about how a federal law can—or should—be implemented to protect it. Conservation Priority Areas. To better manage conservation projects and industrial development within this region, state and federal agencies collaborated to prioritize the areas that are most important to lesser prairie-chickens for nesting, leks, and cover.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range. Priority habitat. Connecting corridors. Available and potential habitat. Estimated historical range. Leks within current available habitat. Active leks. Historical leks. New Mexico. As yet another petition works its way through the federal review process, some experts think the lesser prairie-chicken may herald the rise of a new model of conservation—one that relies less on the hammer of the law and more on the power of negotiation.
If the strategy works—even amidst shifting political winds—it could alter the future for other species, too, by acknowledging the complex and competing interests on lands where development and conservation increasingly struggle to coexist. Across the wide-open prairies of the American Great Plains, lesser prairie-chickens used to gather like ants at a picnic, according to anecdotal reports dating back to the late s that still linger in the collective consciousness of the region.
New book examines ecology of threatened prairie-chickens | EurekAlert! Science News
They use these adornments to attract females at display areas called leks. At the beginning of the 20th century, according to stories that are hard to verify, lesser prairie-chickens flew together in dense flocks that filled the sky. Local lore tells of train cars packed full of dead prairie-chickens leaving Denver every few days, bound for restaurants in Chicago. In the early s, there may have been a million of the birds in Texas alone.
I never got to see that. Wildflowers grow on a lesser prairie-chicken lek in the open prairie of northwest Oklahoma. Over time, the species endured and rebounded from a series of setbacks, including the Dust Bowl of the s, followed by major droughts in the s and 90s. Since midcentury, the birds have also suffered from the development of oil and gas fields, the conversion of grassland to agriculture, and poor management of livestock grazing practices. Citing population declines and habitat loss, the first petition to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the ESA reached the U.
Fish and Wildlife Service in Dick Wilberforce—a Texas-based wildlife photographer who was named artist of the year for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival—started helping biologists study the birds in the s. He has been leading tours to see their leks for two decades. In the early days, he remembers going out with a biologist friend and tracking down 22 leks, with 30 to 40 birds on each one.
Last spring, wildfires destroyed large swaths of lesser prairie-chicken habitat in several states, including a lek that Wilberforce would take visitors to. Those fires, along with threats like overgrazing, droughts, and energy development, have put Wilberforce in a constant state of worry about the birds.
But other species were considered higher priority and the agency lacked the resources to protect them all. Starting in , Tutchton filed a lawsuit attempting to push the agency to move forward with listing the species. It was like a black hole of inaction, Tutchton says. And during the long wait, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the species' population declined from an estimated , in the s to 50, in the mids and around 34, in with only half as many estimated the following year. Video portrait: Sue Selman, owner of a guest ranch that doubles as a featured location in an annual lesser prairie-chicken festival each spring.
When a species is listed under the ESA, it becomes illegal not only to kill or harm individuals but also to damage their habitat, and those restrictions can cause major headaches for businesses and landowners. That was particularly true when federal attention turned to the lesser prairie-chicken, which thrives on habitat that happens to be loaded with oil and gas. The land is also prime real estate for wind turbines, electricity transmission lines, and crops such as wheat, corn, cotton, and soybeans. A listing had the potential to curtail, or at least slow, all sorts of business interests in the region.
Concerns about the lesser prairie-chicken have long been complicated by another twist. Unlike the high-profile conservation story of the sage grouse. Even with a listing, enforcement of the law would be difficult in a place where few people want the federal government poking around on their land.
The weather is hard. Presidential Protections. Since the Endangered Species Act was signed in , the number of species listed as threatened or endangered each year has varied significantly between administrations. During the eight years of the Clinton administration, for example, the average was 65 per year. In President Trump's first year, his administration listed four. Trump present. Obama Bush II Clinton Bush I Reagan Carter In northwest Oklahoma, a stronghold for populations of the otherwise declining birds, males will stop at nothing to outcompete their rivals.
Aware of those obstacles, the Fish and Wildlife Service had started looking for workarounds to the Endangered Species Act years before the lesser prairie-chicken reached the top of the priority list. The first deals were called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances. According to these agreements, if ranchers agreed to better manage their land for lesser prairie-chicken habitat, they would earn exemptions from future regulations should the species ever be listed. Between and , wildlife departments and other teams in New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma signed on to facilitate CCAAs and related deals with landowners.
When the official proposal for listing came through in , that deal-making momentum snowballed into a first-of-its-kind agreement between the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies WAFWA and wildlife agencies in all five states. As part of the larger Range-wide Conservation Plan, the idea of the offsets program was to offer incentives for everyone whose interests intersect with the future of the bird. In essence, industries pay to enroll in the plan, and they pay extra fees to offset any harm their activities cause to lesser prairie-chicken habitat.
The fees that companies pay go to WAFWA, which uses the money to compensate landowners for taking steps to create better habitat for the birds. To sweeten the deal, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding a rule to the threatened listing, which would give companies enrolled in the Range-wide Conservation Plan exemptions from the law if the bird were to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Enrollments came in swiftly.
Conservation and Ecology Research of Lesser Prairie-Chickens
Companies were willing to pay for protection from being surprised down the road, says Nichols, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Texas. In a parallel effort in , the U. Funded by the farm bill, the program enrolls landowners in contracts that ensure exemption from Endangered Species Act regulations in exchange for better managing the land for prairie-chickens. So far, the initiative has enrolled more than landowners who have committed more than 1.
Given those efforts and investments, industry groups felt a sense of betrayal when the Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened in It almost seemed like we went through that effort for naught. Number of petitioned species that have gone extinct while waiting for protection.
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Number of legislative measures that have been introduced in the current Congress to weaken the Endangered Species Act. The listing elicited an equally strong reaction from environmental groups, who thought the decision was too lenient, contained too many exemptions, and should have been an endangered listing, not a threatened one. It was a race to the courthouse, Tutchton says. His team filed a suit in Washington, D. For one thing, the industry group, along with several counties in New Mexico, claimed that protecting the bird under federal law ignored a population rebound that had occurred in recent years, as well as a near tripling of prairie-chicken habitat over the previous three decades.
The plaintiffs also said the listing had inflated future potential risks to the species. And most importantly, they said the U. The Range-wide Conservation Plan, the plaintiffs argued, needed time to work.
A Grand Experiment on the Grasslands
When lesser prairie-chickens mate, the action starts early. As they dance, they inflate bright red air sacs on the sides of their necks and raise feathered neck tufts. With these displays and a chorus of warbling squawks, the males chase and fight each other in an attempt to win the right to mate with as many females as they can. Outside the breeding season, when the birds disperse, they require much more space. A single breeding group, which includes an average of 14 adult prairie-chickens, needs about 10, acres of land with a particular combination of grass, shrubs, and insects that can support every stage of life, Nichols says.
But expansive stretches of habitat have become scarce in the central U.
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In a analysis, the Fish and Wildlife Service pointed out that the availability of patches of suitable habitat larger than 25, acres has fallen.