Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 12, 2016

Contact: Tanya Sanerib, (503) 544-8512,

Fish and Wildlife Service Bows to Pressure From States,
Leaves Lesser Prairie Chicken in Likely 'Death Spiral'

TUCSON, Ariz.— A lengthy legal battle in the fight over protection for lesser prairie chickens ended last night with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bowing to pressure from states to leave the beleaguered birds without Endangered Species Act protection. Lesser prairie chickens were protected as “threatened” in 2014, leading to outcry from states where the birds live, despite legal loopholes that allowed continued oil and gas drilling in their habitat. In 2015 a court in Texas ordered the Service to make a new decision about whether to protect the bird. The Service has just announced it will not attempt to overturn that decision, leaving the vulnerable species without any protection once again. 

“When you refuse to protect a bird that’s lost 92 percent of its habitat, your motivations are laid bare,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the Center. “The lesser prairie chicken now joins the wolverine, Pacific fisher and coastal marten on a growing list of species where Dan Ashe’s Fish and Wildlife Service has blatantly ignored science and prioritized industry profits over protecting our native wildlife.”

The lesser prairie chicken is a large, ground-nesting bird known for its elaborate courtship dances and booming calls. It inhabits shortgrass prairies, grasslands and oak shrub habitats across eastern New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas and southeastern Colorado.

Populations of this “rare dancing bird of the Southwest” have declined by as much as 99 percent. Conservationists first petitioned for its protection in 1995, and it was put on the candidate waiting list for protection in 1998. In court pleadings in 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service noted that loss of even a small amount of suitable lesser prairie chicken habitat could put the species in a “death spiral.”  

Western states complained that the lesser prairie chicken should not have been protected under the Endangered Species Act because voluntary conservation agreements would provide adequate protection.

But initially the Fish and Wildlife Service said in 2014 that those agreements were inadequate. After oil and gas interests and several counties in New Mexico filed a lawsuit challenging protections for the bird, the Service told the Texas judge hearing the case in 2015 that the voluntary conservation plan was “not providing sufficient key lesser prairie-chicken habitat as called for by the Plan’s own conservation strategy.” 

“None of the facts that led scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect this greatly imperiled bird have changed,” said Sanerib. “It couldn’t be clearer that Dan Ashe’s shameful decision to walk away from his duty to protect these iconic western birds has nothing to do with science or the law and everything to do with politics and private profit.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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