Interior proposes rule allowing limited take of lesser prairie chicken

Posted: May 8, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, E&E News PM
Lesser prairie chicken

The Interior Department today proposed a limited exemption to Endangered Species Act protections for a small grouse that roams the southern Great Plains, a move aimed at strengthening habitat protections but which drew fire from one conservation group.

The proposed special rule would allow take of lesser prairie chickens as long as it is incidental to activities under a conservation plan that the Fish and Wildlife Service has determined will provide a net benefit to the bird.

The so-called 4(d) rule under ESA has also been used for federally threatened polar bears and was proposed for wolverines.

The agency in December proposed a "threatened" listing for the grayish-brown grouse, whose native grasslands and prairie habitat in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas has declined by about 84 percent (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2012).

Today, Interior also announced the availability of a draft rangewide conservation plan for the bird that was developed by the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Interstate Working Group.

The strategy, which stems in part from states' efforts to map the bird's crucial habitat, is part of a broader partnership among states, landowners and energy developers to prevent the bird from becoming listed.

"The Service proposes this 4(d) special rule in recognition of the significant conservation planning efforts occurring throughout the range of the lesser prairie-chicken for the purpose of reducing or eliminating threats affecting the species," Fish and Wildlife stated in a Federal Register notice today. "For the Service to approve coverage of a comprehensive conservation program under this 4(d) special rule, the program must provide a net conservation benefit to the lesser prairie chicken population."

One of the purposes of 4(d) rules is to reduce conflicts between people and wildlife, FWS has said. For example, a special rule was granted for wolves in Minnesota to allow limited government trapping of the species so citizens wouldn't take the issue into their own hands.

But environmentalists at the Center for Biological Diversity warned that the rule would weaken protections for the iconic prairie chicken, which federal scientists say is threatened by grazing, tree encroachment, conversion of rangeland to crop and non-native forage, and energy development.

"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," said Jay Lininger of CBD.

Lininger said the prairie chicken rule would allow agriculture-related harm to the bird to continue.

"Lesser prairie chickens are amazing birds -- funny and beautiful. We should do everything we can to protect them and their prairie home for our children and grandchildren to see," he said.

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