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Alamogordo Daily News, May 3, 2013

Lesser prairie chicken doesn't get federal protection
Advocates for lesser prairie chicken say they have lost ground in getting federal protection for rare bird
By Milan Simonich

SANTA FE -- Those seeking federal protection for a rare bird of the Southwest say they lost an important round Friday at the hands of the Obama administration.

A conservation group said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yielded to industrial interests by proposing a special rule harmful to the lesser prairie chicken's chances of survival.

Jay Lininger of the Center for Biological Diversity said the rule that would decrease the U.S. Endangered Species Act's normal protections for the prairie chicken. Similar rules lessened protection for polar bears and have been proposed for wolverines, he said.

"We're disappointed the service is using a rule that is supposed to enhance wildlife conservation to lock the lesser prairie chicken into small areas of habitat, preclude their recovery and give blanket approval to industrial activities that are pushing them to extinction," Lininger said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce took the opposite position. He said the plan by the Fish and Wildlife Service made good sense, and he questioned the motives of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Pearce, R-Hobbs, said the federal rule in question had proven to be an effective tool in prioritizing species management.

"Unfortunately, CBD is consistent in their disdain for this approach. I have to assume this is the case because it could lead to the actual recovery of the species, which is not good for their sue-and-settle agenda that lines the pockets of their attorneys," Pearce said.

Lininger said the lesser prairie chicken needs federal protection to survive, given that its range and population have declined by more than 85 percent since the 1800s. He said his organization will challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service's new plan during the 60 days in which public comments will be taken on it.

A grouse found in parts of five states, including southeastern New Mexico, the lesser prairie chicken has been a candidate for federal protection since 1998. The Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing whether it should be listed as threatened.

So volatile is the question that members of the New Mexico House of Representatives in February spent two hours debating a memorial about the lesser prairie chicken's status, even though their action had no force of law. They voted 38-29 against the prairie chicken being designated as a threatened species.

The bird is about the size of a domestic chicken and lives in sagebrush and shinnery oak. In addition to a region of New Mexico, the lesser prairie chicken is found in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The bird's habitat covers some of the same ground as that of the dunes sagebrush lizard, which is found only in four counties in New Mexico and four others in West Texas.

Daniel Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, decided last year not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. Ashe said the species would survive because of voluntary agreements by landowners, ranchers and the oil and gas industry to conserve its habitat. It lives in blowouts of desert sand with shinnery oak.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed notice that it intends to sue the federal government over Ashe's decision. Lininger said the dunes sagebrush lizard faces extinction unless the U.S. government steps in to protect it.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton