Defenders of Wildlife Has No Confidence in 11th Hour Unsubstantiated Conservation Plan from State Agencies

“Voluntary, state-based conservation plans can work,” said Malcom. “There are good examples with other species, but WAFWA had a chance on prairie-chickens and couldn’t get it done. The FWS should not preclude a listing for lesser prairie-chickens simply because WAFWA wants a second chance with a thus far unproven, unsubstantiated conservation plan.”

Washington, DC

With the public comment period now closed and consideration for protections underway, Defenders of Wildlife is urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the federal Endangered Species Act. Just as FWS moves to consider federal protection,  a last minute and unsubstantiated conservation plan from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies may derail the process, again.  

Conservation Limbo 

A small yet imposing bird of the American prairies and grasslands, lesser prairie-chicken populations have plummeted by an estimated 97% and have lost 92% of their habitat.  
The imperiled birds have been a species of conservation concern since 1973 when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, but the birds have never been granted federal protection.

In 1995, the FWS received a petition to list them but didn’t act until 1998 when they found lesser prairie-chickens warranted listing. They remained a candidate species for listing until 2014 when FWS listed the bird as threatened throughout its range. That listing, however, was short-lived.  

 “In 2014, after a long wait for protection under the Endangered Species Act, lesser prairie-chickens notched a short-lived win,” said Jason Rylander, lead endangered species lawyer for Defenders of Wildlife. “Their rapid decline at the hands of people finally earned them a place on the list. However, after legal challenges from the oil and gas industry, a federal judge in Texas threw out the listing.”

The judge’s reasoning was that FWS hadn’t given enough consideration to state-based conservation plans, most notably the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Range-wide Plan. The WAFWA plan called for voluntary oil and gas agreements that provided funding and mitigation that was supposed to help ensure the birds’ protection. The court’s decision was not based on science or conservation need, but in the aftermath, the USFWS did not pursue another listing. 

Consequently, Defenders and our partners filed a new petition to list the bird in 2016. FWS has now proposed listing the southern distinct population segment of lesser prairie-chickens as endangered and the northern population segment as threatened.

The public comment period on the proposed listing closed on September 1. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the situation grew hopeful for the embattled lesser prairie-chicken.

This time, the case for listing is based on science. It shows continued declines in lesser prairie-chicken populations and the accelerating loss of available habitat for the bird. But it is also warranted because of the abject failure of the WAFWA plan and other conservation measures to protect the bird and its habitat.

A 2019 audit of the WAFWA program showed significant financial mismanagement and lack of adequate conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken. That, combined with a just-released population survey, showed no improvement in lesser prairie-chicken populations, as required by their plan. 

“The audit painted a sorry picture of financial mismanagement and disarray,” said Rylander. “Investors put $65 million into this program, and there have been few, if any, conservation successes. Things have only grown worse for the bird. Populations declined by 11 percent in 2020. WAFWA’s plan had not just failed, it failed miserably.”

Moreover, WAFWA allowed huge expanses of lesser prairie-chicken habitat to disappear, despite tens of millions from the oil, gas and agriculture industries. 

“Using satellite detection, habitat disruption algorithms and government data, we estimate that almost 1 million acres of lesser prairie-chicken habitat was lost or fragmented for oil, agriculture and other commercial development,” said Jacob Malcom, who leads the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife. “It is pretty obvious why conservation targets were not being met.” 

Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice?

Now, with federal protections for the lesser prairie-chicken back on the table, WAFWA recently reemerged to announce that they want to try again. 

“Their new plan still fails to ensure that the program will permanently protect enough habitat to ensure the lesser prairie-chicken’s survival,” said Rylander. “We support voluntary and robust conservation plans from industry, state agencies, and partnerships like WAFWA, but we do not have confidence that their new proposal will result in meaningful protection. The lesser prairie-chicken needs urgent protections, not unsubstantiated promises.”

Voluntary conservation plans are rarely a substitute for listing, but they can help jumpstart recovery efforts that may reduce the time a species requires federal protection. Defenders of Wildlife remains hopeful that WAFWA can create a plan with enough permanent mitigation and adequate incentives to help conserve the lesser prairie- chicken. But those ongoing efforts should not derail the federal protections currently being considered. 

“Voluntary, state-based conservation plans can work,” said Malcom. “There are good examples with other species, but WAFWA had a chance on prairie-chickens and couldn’t get it done. The FWS should not preclude a listing for lesser prairie-chickens simply because WAFWA wants a second chance with a thus far unproven, unsubstantiated conservation plan.”
 

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

Media Contact

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Hawk Hammer headshot
Hawk Hammer
Communications Specialist
hhammer@defenders.org
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Jacob Malcom
Jacob Malcom
Director, Center for Conservation Innovation
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Jason Rylander headshot
Jason Rylander
Senior Endangered Species Counsel

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