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A male lesser prairie-chicken has feathers that stick up like horns and orange air sacks on the sides of its throat. Both are used to attract mates. (Photo by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Federal wildlife officials have declared the boom-or-bust lesser prairie chicken a threatened species in Colorado, and endangered in states to the south, a goal of a long environmental campaign but a disappointment to farmers who fear new restrictions. 

“The lesser prairie chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders, declaring the new designations after years of science studies. 

Wildlife scientists and advocates say the bird is a leading indicator of healthy continuous grassland and prairies, and the species once ranged across nearly 100 million acres in the Southwest with a population possibly in the millions. It’s now limited to a range of a few million acres broken up by row crops, overgrazing and oil and gas development, with aerial surveys putting the population at 32,000 across five states. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided a map of the current ranges for the lesser prairie chicken, as it announced new threatened and endangered species designations for the bird on Nov. 17, 2022. The northern area, including Colorado, is considered “threatened” territory for the bird, while the southern area, focused on Texas, will see the bird listed as the more serious “endangered” status. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presentation)

The lesser prairie chicken will now be listed as endangered in its southern range, in New Mexico and Texas, and on the slightly less restrictive threatened list in its northern range, including Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. 

With a threatened designation, farmers and ranchers are able to continue most land uses but face new reviews on significant changes. The service’s FAQs on the decision says the northern habitat for the bird from the prairie grouse family “is not currently in danger of extinction but is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all of its range.”

With the endangered listing, southern landowners may be forced to reverse some existing practices to avoid “taking” of the birds. Land use restrictions for listed species can affect everything from row crops to wetlands building to roads, as well as energy development and solar and wind farms.

“For more than 25 years, lesser prairie chickens have been on a roller coaster of listing decisions, court orders, and failed recovery efforts, all while their populations continue to decline alarmingly,” said Daly Edmunds, policy and outreach director for Audubon Rockies. The bird had already been listed as threatened under Colorado rules, Edmunds said, but needs even stronger federal protections. 

“We are hopeful that this decision, and the additional attention directed at this species and its habitat, will ultimately change the course for this bird,” she said. 

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WildEarth Guardians, among other groups, is “relieved” at the federal move, said Joe Bushyhead, an endangered species attorney for the nonprofit.

“Voluntary conservation agreements with industry have not done enough to stop the bird’s decline,” Bushyhead said. “The Endangered Species Act is the single most effective tool for preventing extinction, so we’re optimistic listing will provide a lifeline and a path to eventual recovery.”

Farm and ranch advocates said they were disappointed by the listings, pointing to years of work with the service and with nonprofit groups to set aside conservation easements supporting lesser prairie chicken habitat, and efforts on grazing management. 

“We always hate to see designations, just as an industry,” said Zach Riley, executive director of the Colorado Livestock Association. “Because that just means it becomes a hands-off, punitive management of a species or an animal, without the inclusion of the original stewards” of the land, he said. 

Losing more land use control to federal wildlife designations has long been the reality for farmers and ranchers dealing with species ranging from gray wolves to sage grouse and more, Riley noted. 

“It seems to always be the MO of the environmental groups, who go after industries and use the Endangered Species Act to do it,” he said. 

The federal agency mentioned the efforts by hundreds of landowners setting aside 1.8 million acres in conservation reserves, and 3 million acres of conservation agreements in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Still, the agency said, the voluntary efforts “have not demonstrated an ability to offset the threats and reverse the trends of habitat loss and fragmentation” for the species.

The lesser prairie chicken thrives in years with higher precipitation that bolster prairie wetlands, then shrinks severely in the kinds of drought years plaguing the Southwest in recent decades. 

Environment advocates said they need to see the final details of the federal rules published later this month before deciding whether enough protections were extended. Bushyhead said WildEarth Guardians has pushed for Colorado lands to be included in the more restrictive “endangered” designation. 

“We need to review the service’s rule to ensure it provides durable, effective protections for these populations,” he said.

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver