Lesser prairie chicken listing reflects 'ecosystem problem' in parts of New Mexico, Colorado
Two different populations of a rare prairie bird that lives in parts of the Mountain West were listed under the Endangered Species Act this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The lesser prairie chicken's range reaches into five states, including Colorado and New Mexico. There used to be hundreds of thousands of them across 100 million acres, according to the FWS. Now, aerial surveys conducted by the agency over the past ten years show there are only about 32,000 left.
“When you look at the threats facing the species, the conservation efforts occurring, the habitat availability and the population trends all together wrap all of those things together and that kind of gives you a view of what the status of the species is now or what the status of the species may be going forward biologically,” said Clay Nichols, FWS's lead lesser prairie chicken biologist.
The agency listed the northern population, which covers parts of southeastern Colorado, as threatened, which means the birds are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. It listed the southern population, which encompasses parts of oil-rich eastern New Mexico, as endangered, meaning it's on the brink of extinction.
“One event, whether it's manmade or a stochastic event, can send the species over the edge and into extinction,” Nichols said.
The primary concern for the species is habitat loss, as 90% of its liveable land has already been diminished by human activities like oil and gas drilling or livestock grazing.
Nichols says the lesser prairie chicken is an indicator of degradation across the region's native grasslands and prairies – "a symptom of what's going on with the health of the ecosystem there."
“There's going to be another species after this and another one after that and another one after that,” he said, “because there are hundreds of grassland birds that rely upon this same ecosystem. And so it's an ecosystem problem that we're having.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has been pushing the FWS to protect the lesser prairie chicken since 1995, and last month the organization sued the agency because FWS's final rule on the species was five months overdue.
“We wish that the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection for 27 years, because quicker action would have meant a lot more lesser prairie chickens alive in a lot more places today,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in a press release. “We’ll watch the next steps closely to ensure there are also strong protections for the wild places where these birds live.”
The listings will go into effect in two months once it is published in the Federal Register.
The bird joins many other species protected under the Endangered Species Act. In Colorado alone, there are more than 40 on the list.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.