Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas struck down a federal protection for the lesser prairie chicken (LPC), a species found in southern Great Plains states.
Junell’s September 1 ruling overturns a 2014 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the species, found in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Although in the long term the court’s decision could influence how FWS considers voluntary conservation measures when issuing listing decisions under ESA, there is no indication it played any role in the decision made by FWS not to list the related sage grouse as threatened or endangered under ESA on September 22.
Nearly Unprecedented Move
It is quite rare for a federal court to overturn a listing by FWS, says Brian Seasholes, director of the Reason Foundation’s Endangered Species Project.
Junell ruled FWS failed to consider the extent a comprehensive conservation plan designed and administered by state wildlife agencies and supported by energy companies and landowners would reduce the major threats to the prairie chicken.
“This is a very unusual move and a sign of how out-of-touch the Obama administration is with the on-the-ground realities of endangered species issues, especially successful, incentive-based voluntary efforts to conserve species,” Seasholes said.
In a press statement, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) praised Junell’s decision to overturn the prairie chicken listing.
“The court’s decision to vacate the listing demonstrates that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately consider these conservation plans prior to the listing decision, which is a binding requirement,” Inhofe’s statement said. “Across the LPC range, its population has grown by 25 percent since 2014. Not only has this region seen improved weather conditions, the LPC population has most notably benefited from effective conservation being conducted under the non-federal plans where industry has committed tens of millions of dollars towards preservation actions and landowners have conserved nearly 40,000 acres of habitat.”
Inhofe’s statement continued, “The increase in LPC population shows that states, industry, and farmers have proven their ability to steward their land and successfully conserve the LPC population without the need for big government interference.
“It is my hope that this ruling, along with language providing a temporary delisting of the LPC in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act, will enable states to effectively conserve species without all of the burdensome federal regulations that come with a listing under the ESA,” Inhofe stated.
The government has yet to indicate whether it will appeal Junell’s ruling. Seasholes says if the government really wants to protect the prairie chicken, it should work with landowners instead of pressing to put the species under federal protection.
“The key to the lesser prairie chicken’s conservation is private landowners, because they own 95 percent of the species’ habitat,” said Seasholes. “Therefore, conservation efforts need to be flexible, innovative, and centered on creating incentives for private landowners to conserve the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat.”
Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.