The Obama administration has placed a grassland grouse known as the lesser prairie chicken on a list of threatened species, a move that could affect oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in five states including Oklahoma.
The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a step below "endangered" status and allows for more flexibility in how protections for the bird will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act.
Dan Ashe, the agency's director, said he knows the decision will be unpopular with governors in the five affected states - Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico - but said the agency was following the best science available.
"The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits," Ashe said in an interview. "The bird is in decline and has been in decline for more than a decade."
The prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its colorful neck plume and stout build, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat, mostly because of human activity such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines, Ashe said. The bird, which weighs from 1-1/2 to 2 pounds, has also been severely impacted by the region's ongoing drought.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said she was disappointed with the listing under the Endangered Species Act, but added that she believes state and federal officials "have a unique opportunity to show how a plan based in state management of this species can allow for a quick recovery" and eventual de-listing of the bird.
Governor Mary Fallin's statement:
"While I had asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the Lesser Prairie Chicken under the ESA, due in large part to Oklahoma's efforts to develop and implement the Range Wide Plan, I believe we have a unique opportunity to show how a plan based in state management of this species can allow for a quick recovery. I appreciate the outstanding work of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to develop a new conservation model that keeps states in charge of managing species, like the Lesser Prairie Chicken, rather than the federal government taking over all management control. The potential impact of this listing, without the Range Wide Plan, could have resulted in damaging hits to our state's economy, particularly our energy and agriculture industries. With a large amount of conservation already taking place, my administration will take all steps to continue to implement this plan and work with the Service to de-list this species as soon as possible. I am very excited to see industry and the states continue to work together on conserving this bird with our jointly developed conservation strategies."
Biologists say a major problem is that prairie chickens fear tall structures, where predators such as hawks can perch and spot them. Wind turbines, electricity transmission towers and drilling rigs are generally the tallest objects on the plains.
Last year, the prairie chicken's population across the five states declined to fewer than 18,000 birds - nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 population estimates.
The listing decision, which will take effect around May 1, includes a special rule that Ashe said will allow officials and private landowners in the five affected states to manage conservation efforts. The rule, which Ashe called unprecedented, specifies that activities such as oil and gas drilling and utility line maintenance that are covered under a five-state conservation plan adopted last year will be allowed to continue.
The plan, developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, establishes that conservation practices carried out through usual agricultural and energy development are not subject to further regulation under the Endangered Species Act.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit this month over the Obama administration's decision to settle a lawsuit with an environmental group over the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken and other species.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt's statement:
"Increasingly, federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups by using ‘sue and settle' tactics to reach ‘friendly settlements' of lawsuits filed by the interest groups. These settlements, which often impose tougher regulations and shorter timelines than those imposed by Congress, are having a crippling effect on the U.S. economy. Furthermore, because these settlements are taking place without public input, attorneys general are unable to represent the respective interests of their states, businesses, and citizens."
Ashe denied collusion with any group and said the agency hopes to avoid litigation over the listing decision.
Oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have pledged to devote more than 3 million acres in the five states toward conserving the bird's habitat. Most of the acreage was set aside with the aim to prevent the bird from being given federal protection as a threatened species, but Ashe said states and private landowners will play a significant role after the listing decision.
"The key thing is, states will remain in the driver's seat in management and conservation of this bird," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.