April 11–The federal government is not doing enough to protect an imperiled grouse from oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in the southern Great Plains, three environmental groups said Thursday.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians said a new federal plan would not reverse the lesser prairie chicken’s decline because it would allow ongoing destruction of the bird’s habitat.
The groups said they intend to sue the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act after a required 60-day waiting period.
The potential suit comes two weeks after the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grayish-brown bird as a threatened species — a step below endangered status, which is more protective. It also issued a special rule that will allow oil and gas drilling and other activities in the grouse’s five-state range, which includes parts of West Texas.
“This decision is a recipe for further declines of a rare and beautiful bird already teetering on the brink of extinction,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
Claire Cassel, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman, said the agency’s decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species with a special rule protects the rapidly declining bird while encouraging the states and landowners to conserve habitat.
The lesser prairie chicken’s historical range stretches over Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, sparking direct conflict with livestock grazing, oil and gas development and the construction of wind turbines and power transmission lines.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the bird has lost nearly 90 percent of its habitat because of human encroachment. The troubled creature lives only in vast native prairies and areas of low-growing shrubs with few trees or tall man-made structures where hawks and other predators can reside.
To grow the bird’s population, state and federal officials said they need “strongholds” of continuous, high-quality prairie.
Those areas in part would be a product of the voluntary conservation agreements. Under the deals, energy companies and other developers would undertake certain measures, from removing brush to planting native grasses.
When the companies cannot avoid harming the areas where the species lives, they would pay fees that would assist others in preserving two acres of habitat for every damaged one.
The agreements, in return, would shield the companies from fines or prosecution if a chicken is found dead on their property. Already 32 companies, mostly in the oil and gas industry, have enrolled 3.5 million acres in the program.
The environmental groups, however, said there is no scientific evidence to prove that the voluntary agreements will protect the species.
The measures are “too little, too late, and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity. “The lesser prairie chicken needs the full protection of the Endangered Species Act to stem the tide of habitat destruction.”