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Lesser Prairie Chickens May Gain New Protections Due to Threats From Gas and Oil Industries

lesser prairie chicken

A species of grouse which is a bit smaller in stature than the Greater Prairie Chicken, the Lesser Prairie Chicken once roamed the Great Plains in vast numbers. These days, though, this medium sized game bird exists in a much sparser scattering of populations in sections of the Great Plains, mostly concentrated near Western Texas and the Northern Panhandle of Texas.

The Fight to Protect the Prairie Chicken

Due to ongoing population decline, the Center for Biological Diversity has been engaged in a long struggle to have the Lesser Prairie Chicken listed as “threatened” or “endangered” by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Beginning in 1995, the Center has brought up several lawsuits and petitions on behalf of this precariously positioned bird. As a result of the 1995 lawsuit, the Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as threatened in 2014, but was delisted shortly after due to the response by the oil and gas industries.

The current legal effort aims to list the birds in the areas surrounding Western Texas and New Mexico as “endangered” and the birds living in North Texas and the surrounding states as “threatened.” Endangered is the highest protection level designated by the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits various forms of harm towards listed species including, critically, damage to protected species’ habitats.

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Industry and the Lesser Prairie Chicken

Fossil fuels from the oil and gas industries are cited as a major source of population decline for Lesser Prairie Chickens by the Center for Biological Diversity. Increased heat in the already warm regions where these birds nest makes adult survival difficult and successful egg incubation incredibly challenging.

Furthermore, Lesser Prairie Chickens have been observed to instinctively avoid tall structures. Because birds of prey often perch on high vertical structures, things like power lines and drilling rigs are given a wide berth by Lesser Prairie Chickens. This means that the actual impact of industries expanding into prairie lands are hard to estimate. The actual footprint of a structure may only scratch the surface of the habitat degradation which is causes for these birds.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association disputes the negative impact of the oil industry on Lesser Prairie Chickens in this region and cites increases in Lesser Prairie Chicken numbers since the implementation of various self-policing conservation efforts.

According to Ben Shepperd, who is the president of of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association:

“The PBPA, along with our partners at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and the five state wildlife agencies continue to work together to protect the bird and its habitat. The numbers speak for themselves. Lesser prairie chicken population numbers have doubled across the range since the inception of our conservation efforts. Millions of acres are enrolled in the program, and it continues to be managed professionally with tremendous success.”

Federal protections for the Lesser Prairie Chicken continue to face opposition from the oil and gas industries as the legal dispute trudges forward.

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