Why regulation may harm the survival of Lesser Prairie Chicken

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
A pair of lesser prairie chicken males show off their colorful plumage and vie for attention from females as they fight during the spring mating ritual at a ranch in Scott City.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced they are proposing to list the lesser prairie chicken as endangered and threatened under the Endangered Species Act. U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall were upset with this move, saying it will harm conservation efforts already in place to protect both the bird and the land it calls home. 

There are fewer than 20,000 lesser prairie chickens in Kansas. According to the Nature Conservancy of Kansas, more than half of these birds live in western Kansas - many of them reside on a private ranch near Scott City. This grouse needs hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the right places to be saved.

Proposals are underway for helping landowners set aside prairie land for conservation by paying landowners for energy rights to their land. This allows regulatory assurances for wind, solar, electric transmission and distribution lines and communication towers for industry participants who wish to responsibly develop projects in the grasslands where the lesser prairie-chicken thrives. By having this agreement between industry and landowners, farmers and ranchers would get paid through private sector investments for setting aside land for promoting lesser prairie chickens.

According to Marshall, not allowing this incentive to landowners will hurt Kansas' economy, by hindering oil and gas independence, increasing utility costs and preventing the development of renewable energy in Western Kansas.

More:How can the lesser prairie chicken be saved? Farmers are starting by saving their habitat

The lesser prairie chicken became a candidate for listing under the ESA in 1998 and was listed as a threatened species in 2014. The listing was vacated in 2015, following a lawsuit. 

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement is disappointing and a reminder that this Administration favors government overreach and heavy-handed regulation over cooperation with those who have been working to protect the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat and growing the bird’s population across the Midwest,” said Marshall. “Instead of working with landowners to promote continued voluntary efforts, the service is instead implementing a listing that limits landowner autonomy and opportunity."

A male lesser prairie chicken

In November 2020, Moran secured report language in the Senate FY2021 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill directing the FWS to work with local stakeholders on voluntary conservation efforts to avoid a listing of the lesser prairie-chicken on the ESA.

On May 21, 2021, Moran and Marshall and others urged U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to not list the lesser prairie-chicken under the ESA.

“The Biden administration's proposal to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act threatens to harm farmers, ranchers, energy producers and rural communities," Moran said in a release. 

"Kansas and surrounding states invested millions of public and private dollars in conservation efforts in the habitat area, resulting in the bird’s population more than doubling. The decision to propose a listing despite voluntary conservation efforts that continue to successfully restore habitat area removes any incentive for similar locally-driven efforts to occur for other species. This proposal will result in less wildlife conservation in the future, not more.”

Find out more about conservation efforts of the lesser prairie-chicken here.