MIDLAND, Texas – A federal court in Texas has stripped the lesser prairie chicken of Endangered Species Act protections, a victory for oil and gas companies that argued conservation efforts are working.
District Judge Robert Junell ruled Tuesday in Midland that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to make a proper evaluation of the states' conservation plan when it listed the lesser prairie chicken — a species of grouse with feathered feet and striped plumage — as threatened.
That was the argument made by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. Its president, Ben Shepperd, said Wednesday the ruling "serves as vindication of the unprecedented stakeholder participation across the lesser prairie chicken range."
The association had said the listing would impede operations and cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas development in one of the country's most prolific basins, the Permian Basin in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico.
"This essentially means that oil companies can build an oil derrick over these birds' nests," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
The group said in a statement that the ruling was a blow to the species, which has lost most of its habitat to oil and gas operations, wind farms and power lines.
The lesser prairie chicken was once was plentiful in the Great Plains, but its habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 1800s and its population by 99 percent. It lives primarily in Kansas but also in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. With 95 percent of the bird's range on private lands, federal agencies have worked with ranchers and oil and gas companies to restore habitat and minimize impacts to the species.
In a bid to keep the bird off the endangered species list, the five states in the lesser prairie chicken's range organized their own conservation program, offering economic incentives to landowners and companies that set aside land. But the lesser prairie chicken was designated as threatened last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one step beneath endangered status under the Endangered Species Act. That means federal officials think the bird soon will be in danger of extinction.
After plentiful spring rainfall, the population increased by 25 percent this year to 29,000 birds, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies says. The population growth shows the results of "boots-on-the-ground conservation," said Congressional Western Caucus Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis, who hailed the ruling.
The U.S. Senate in January rejected an amendment by Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran to remove the lesser prairie chicken from the government's threatened species list.