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Interior's FWS to Give Lesser Prairie Chicken Protection Status Another Look

Federal officials on Tuesday agreed to reconsider the status of the lesser prairie chicken, whose habitat sprawls through the oil and gas fields of West Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and the Rockies, after a petition requested it be relisted for protection.

The Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in early 2014 listed the prairie grouse species as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Environmental groups that wanted more protections for the species sued, as did industry groups and states that wanted the listing dropped. Last year, a U.S. District Court in Texas vacated the listing determination, finding the FWS had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" and had not considered state conservation efforts underway.

The FWS initially appealed, but dropped its pursuit in May and the listing was removed in July. However, a 161-page petition filed in September by the WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity asked the FWS to reverse course. FWS said the petition indicates there is "substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing the lesser prairie-chicken may be warranted" under a Special Status Assessment that in turn could lead to another ESA listing. A notice is to be published this week in the Federal Register, which in turn would trigger a 12-month review of the bird's status.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he was "disappointed that the FWS is moving ahead to relist the lesser prairie chicken." He pointed to the Texas court overturning the previous listing and said a review was not warranted.

"It is important that we let the multi-state conservation plan have time to work before bringing down the full force of the Endangered Species Act," Inhofe said. "The ESA should be a last resort; local, cooperative efforts, as seen in Oklahoma and her partner states, could set a precedent for a way to move forward on species conservation without the heavy hand of the federal government."

Inhofe said the incoming Trump administration would be better for industry.

“I am confident that the Trump administration is aware that state conservation is sufficient to protect the lesser prairie-chicken and I will work with the new administration to ensure local efforts are given the chance to work.”

Environmental groups said providing emergency protections for the grouse are long overdue. The species primarily dwells along the Texas-New Mexico border in the Permian Basin, as well as in western Kansas and in parts of Colorado -- all areas where substantial oil and natural gas production are ongoing.

"The lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits and needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act," said Defenders of Wildlife senior staff attorney Jason Rylander. "Now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has again acknowledged the bird may warrant protection, the agency must promptly relist the species and develop a far better strategy to conserve it on state and private lands."

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