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Federal wildlife officials list lesser prairie chicken as threatened in Kansas

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The bird will be listed as endangered in New Mexico and parts of the Texas Panhandle

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by Allison Kite, Kansas Reflector
November 17, 2022

Federal wildlife officials have listed the iconic lesser prairie chicken as threatened across its Kansas habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.

The bird is in even more dire straits in the southwest, where it will be listed as endangered.

The listing comes after years of fighting by wildlife advocates to protect the bird, which can be found in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The Center for Biological Diversity sued in October, saying USFWS was moving too slowly after proposing the listing a year and a half ago.

The lesser prairie chicken, which lives in prairie grass and shrubs in western Kansas, once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But U.S. wildlife officials estimate 90% of the habitat the birds once inhabited is gone and only about 32,000 lesser prairie chickens remain.

“The lesser prairie chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril,” USFWS’s southwest regional director, Amy Lueders, said in a news release. “These habitats support a diversity of wildlife and are valued for water quality, climate resilience, grazing, hunting and recreation.”

The listing means USFWS believes the birds are near extinction in their southern range — New Mexico and the southwest Texas Panhandle — and are at risk of becoming endangered in the northern stretch of their home — Kansas, Oklahoma and the northeast Texas Panhandle.

USFWS said it will work with states to determine areas of critical habitat for the birds.

Protecting the lesser prairie chicken has been a source of controversy in Kansas for years. Lesser prairie chickens thrive in swaths of unbroken tracts of native grasses. Efforts to conserve habitat for the birds can be seen as a threat to farmers, ranchers and energy producers.

Kansas’ U.S. senators, Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall, and U.S. Rep. Tracy Mann condemned the USFWS decision in a news release, saying it would harm farmers, ranchers and energy producers.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement is disappointing and a reminder that this administration favors government micromanagement of agriculture and heavy handed regulation in their war against energy producers instead of working with landowners to promote continued voluntary conservation efforts,” Marshall said.

USFWS has worked with nearly 900 landowners to conserve prairie for the birds on about 1.6 million acres, according to the news release.

Wildlife officials previously listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in 2014 only to see that reversed by court order.

In 2019, three conservation groups sued the federal government to force a decision on the lesser prairie chicken. The groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, claimed the Department of the Interior and USFWS were in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to make a ruling on a 2016 petition to list the birds.

Lesser prairie chickens are iconic for their unique mating ritual. Each spring, males dance in an effort to attract hens. Michael Robinson, the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior conservation advocate, said in a statement that “this is terrific news for these fascinating birds and the overlooked and much-exploited prairies where they live.”

“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,” Robinson said. “We’ll watch the next steps closely to ensure there are also strong protections for the wild places where these birds live.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttps://sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2021 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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