WASHINGTON — The federal government on Thursday designated the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, a long-anticipated announcement that politicians warned could set off a possible battle over states’ rights.
The lesser prairie chicken is a species of grouse with feathered feet and striped plumage. It lives in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado.
The bird’s habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 19th century, as the once-open prairie has transformed into a mosaic of farms, ranches and towns, crisscrossed by roads, fences and power lines. The introduction of wind turbines and oil and gas wells further reduced the native grasslands preferred by lesser prairie chickens, which once were plentiful in the Great Plains.
The bird’s population hit a record low of 17,616 birds last year, a reduction of 50 percent from 2012.
“We can’t ignore the mounting evidence that the prairie ecosystem that supports the lesser prairie chicken and so many other species is in trouble,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told reporters Thursday in Washington.
Threatened status means federal officials believe the bird likely soon will be in danger of extinction. The designation is one step beneath endangered and provides for more flexible protections under the Endangered Species Act, Ashe said.
The move prompted anxiety among landowners and threats of defiance from politicians in the bird’s five-state habitat. They worry the listing could wreck havoc with the area’s economy by limiting land use and raising regulatory costs.
Stacy Hoeme, a rancher in in Gove County, Kan., said he is concerned about what potential federal hoops he may have to jump through with the threatened status of the prairie chicken.
“It makes me nervous,” he said. “I want to see them protected but without going overboard.”
In Texas, independent oil producers said the designation would undoubtedly affect oil and gas production. And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “Today’s decision, which has real-world consequences for Texas families, landowners and businesses, is a missed opportunity to acknowledge Texans’ unprecedented conservation efforts.”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was blunt about his dismay. “This is an overreach on the part of the federal government,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Brownback had voiced his opposition to listing the chicken as a threatened species in a letter sent in January to Ashe.
In the letter, Brownback said the listing wasn’t justified and “would jeopardize Kansas’ largest industries _ agriculture and energy.”
The governor blamed the recent decline in the chickens’ numbers on three years of drought in Kansas and in the other four states that are home to the bird.
“The interests of conservation and protection of the species can be furthered without the heavy-handed measures that could accompany a federal listing,” he wrote.
Brownback added that Kansas stands ready to challenge the listing in court.
A bill pending in the Kansas Legislature would prevent the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in the state by declaring any federal law related to the bird null and void. The bill, which passed the state Senate 30-10 on Feb. 12, makes it a felony for any federal employee to enforce the bird’s threatened status.
“This issue is not just about one type of bird, it’s about states’ rights,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said in an interview Thursday.
Kobach, who drafted the bill, said litigation over the bird’s status likely would cost the state $100,000 to $400,000, but “this is a fight that is necessary for Kansas to carry out.”
Kobach questioned the science behind the federal government’s decision and said the lesser prairie chicken’s population will bounce back once the drought lets up.
“The people in Washington differ significantly from the Kansas wildlife and parks biologists, who are much more familiar with the lesser prairie chicken and still regard it on a secure enough footing that it can be hunted,” Kobach said.
In Washington, conservative members of Congress were quick to voice their condemnation of the Obama administration’s announcement of the listing.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., pledged to “fight to undo this foolish and overly prescriptive rule.”
Roberts said he is disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored voluntary attempts to conserve the prairie chicken’s habitat.
“I have actively opposed listing the lesser prairie chicken, especially during an ongoing drought and when it causes considerable economic hardship for Kansans,” Roberts said in a statement. “We have voluntary efforts, both public and private, at the state and local level to improve the prairie chicken population. Fish and Wildlife should have taken these efforts into consideration before determining this bird must have federal protection.”
Cornyn criticized the administration for making its decision “based on arbitrary deadlines set in a closed-door meeting, ignoring the ongoing efforts by Texas landowners and businesses.”
Cornyn, Roberts and other senators from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas sent a letter to Ashe last month, requesting a 60-day extension of Fish and Wildlife’s final decision on the bird. Other lawmakers who signed the letter included Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
Ashe granted the extension, but the extra time didn’t change his agency’s determination to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.
The agency had been working for years with officials and landowners in the five affected states to encourage voluntary conservation efforts for the bird.
In a gesture that agency officials described as unprecedented, the bird’s threatened status will coincide with implementation of a special rule that will enable all five states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the lesser prairie chicken and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development, utility line maintenance and “normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land.”
“I don’t anticipate the need for a lot of federal action or any federal action if the range-wide plan is implemented,” Ashe said Thursday. “States will be in the driver seat for management. . . . There’s also a long history of state legislation to try to prohibit fed officials from conducting federal activities at the state or local level, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Environmentalists on Thursday welcomed Ashe’s announcement.
Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said he’s saddened that the lesser prairie chicken’s situation has deteriorated to the point where listing became necessary, but he’s hopeful that the federal government’s action on Thursday can help save the bird.
“We really have an opportunity for everyone to refocus their energies to recover this species so that it won’t have to be listed as threatened for very long,” Klataske said. “Because if we do the right thing the population should recover and then they won’t have to be listed anymore.”
Beccy Tanner of The Wichita Eagle contributed.