Groups seeking protections for lesser prairie chicken sue

A lesser prairie chicken. Conservationists estimate there are just 38,000 of the birds across five states, including New Mexico. Courtesy photo

Three conservation groups have filed a federal lawsuit asking a court to force the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to make a decision on whether to list the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act.

The population of the birds — known for their colorful mating dance in the spring — has been steadily decreasing for some years. Conservationists estimate there are just 38,000 of the birds across five states, including New Mexico.

“The decline has been a long time coming because of the conversion of prairies to various uses — agriculture, energy development, oil and gas drilling,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The other plaintiffs are the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians, which has a number of branches across the country, including Santa Fe.

“What we are asking for is that the lesser prairie chicken not be allowed to become extinct. … Put them on the endangered list before they become extinct,” Robinson said.

A 50 percent drop in population actually got the lesser prairie chicken listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. But oil and gas entities filed lawsuits, saying the protection, which imposes land-use restrictions, were unnecessary at around the same time the bird’s population began to increase.

In 2015, a federal judge in Texas issued a ruling in one of those lawsuits in favor of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, finding that the bird’s endangered listing was arbitrary. Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appealed that ruling, it was upheld in 2016 by a federal appeals court judge.

That same year, the plaintiffs in this week’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a new determination as to whether the bird should be protected. According to the new lawsuit, that agency did not issue a ruling within the one-year deadline mandated by law.

The lesser prairie chicken is a medium-sized grouse living in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. According to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, about 2,600 prairie chickens existed in the West Texas-southeast New Mexico region in 2017.

Climate change, drought conditions and predators also whittled the species’ numbers, Robinson said.

The lawsuit asks the judge to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to publish a ruling on the issue by a certain date, award the plaintiffs the cost of their legal fees and order other relief the court deems “just and proper.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.