Sunday, December 2, 2012

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces lesser prairie chicken status proposal


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) today announced a proposed "Threatened" listing of the lesser prairie chicken, and officials with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation say they will be taking all possible steps to convince the USFWS that state-led conservation efforts are the best approach to ensuring survival of the bird.
"This is not a final ruling," said Richard Hatcher, director of the Wildlife Department. "This announcement is a reason to build on the momentum we've already gained with our partners in conserving the lesser prairie chicken. Over the next year, the Wildlife Department will work closely with other states in the lesser prairie chicken range and the USFWS to demonstrate that a final 'Threatened' listing is not necessary and a 'Not Warranted' listing is more appropriate."
A final listing rule for the lesser prairie chicken is scheduled within one year of the announcement. In the meantime, there will be no impact from the proposed listing.
In November, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a final Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Plan to increase sustainable populations. The plan will focus on 15 "core areas" in western and northwest Oklahoma averaging 50,000 acres each. The Department will identify research needs and management actions to support responsible development as well as develop incentives for landowners to improve and restore suitable habitat in those core areas.
Through the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group - comprised of biologists from the five states included in the bird's range - and other efforts, a plan is being developed to conserve birds range wide.
The lesser prairie chicken once flourished in portions of northwest Oklahoma and four other states, but land use changes and habitat fragmentation have led to long-term population declines across the iconic upland bird's range. The lesser prairie chicken has been considered a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1998. According to the first standardized range wide survey, there are an estimated 37,170 birds across the five-state range.
"We've been and will remain focused on three key areas," Hatcher said. "Those include habitat management, habitat protection and research and planning. We've been working closely with landowners and industry leaders. We have acquired acreage in key areas where we can permanently protect critical habitat. And we're leading the way in research and planning tools that will help protect the birds, such as our Spatial Planning Tool that helps mindful industry professionals and developers to identify critical habitat before breaking ground on projects. In short, a 'Threatened' listing won't accomplish any more for the lesser prairie chicken than what we are already diligently doing."
The proposed "Threatened" listing will now go through a one-year review process, wherein the USFWS will analyze the best available scientific information, including the effects of current ongoing conservation efforts. After evaluating conservation efforts and threats to the species, the Service could remove it from candidate status or proceed with a final listing. If specific circumstances and criteria are met, a six-month extension could extend this process.