Mon, October 18, 2021

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Biden administration proposes protections for threatened bird species out West, setting up clash with oil and gas industry


WASHINGTON - The Biden administration called for new protections under the Endangered Species Act for an iconic bird of the Great Plains on Wednesday, a move with major consequences for the oil and gas industry.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials proposed listing as endangered a portion of the lesser prairie chicken's population living in Texas and New Mexico, whose range overlaps with the oil and gas-rich Permian Basin. The agency stopped short of awarding the same protections to the birds' northern population, in Oklahoma and Kansas, on the grounds that their numbers had declined less drastically.

Voluntary conservation efforts "have not kept pace with the threats facing [the] lesser prairie chicken, and [there] remain challenges conserving the species for the long term," Amy Lueders, a regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters on Wednesday.

The decision, one of nearly two dozen new conservation measures the administration has adopted in the last four months, underscores Biden's push to unravel his predecessor's environmental policies. In a separate move Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency abolished a rule restricting what sort of studies the agency can use in crafting public health rules.

Biden has targeted one of Trump's energy and environmental policies or proposed one of his own at the rate of about one a day, according to a Washington Post analysis.

While administration officials have emphasized the need to heed scientific findings on climate change and other pressing environmental threats, Wednesday's actions highlight the difficult terrain they must navigate on these issues. In the case of the lesser prairie chicken, for example, the small bird plays an outsized role in national politics.

It has roamed millions of acres over several states in the Great Plains, grasslands that have been carved up over the years to make way for corn and soybean fields, sprawling cities, and the Midwestern drilling rigs used to suck oil and gas out of the ground. The chickens have now lost about 90% of their historic population, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said.

As its numbers have dwindled, conflicts over whether to protect the bird - and potentially hamper energy development in conservative-leaning states - have only intensified. Its range overlaps with part of the Permian Basin, one of the most important regions in the country for oil and gas development.

The federal government is now proposing two separate designations to try to prevent the species' demise. The southern population of some 5,000 birds living along the New Mexico-Texas border would be considered endangered, while a northern group would be listed as threatened, a less restrictive designation. After taking input from the public, the agency will make a final decision on these listings within a year.

An endangered listing would likely impose restrictions on new development such as oil and gas drilling, as well as renewable energy projects, across a swath of the birds' range.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Clay Nichols told reporters that the "things that would be prohibited" may include actions that lead to the "take" - or killing - of prairie chickens, or loss or fragmentation of their habitat.

Landowners or businesses "would likely want to come work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to talk about getting some sort of permit or mechanism in place" to comply with the Endangered Species Act, he said.

The proposed threatened designation for the northern group of birds would allow for more exceptions for landowners when the death of the birds results from normal agricultural activities or preparations for wildfires, officials said.

Energy development is a particular threat, environmentalists say, because drilling structures provide a perch for hawks who hunt the ground-dwelling birds, forcing the prairie chickens to move elsewhere. Environmentalists also see climate change as a serious threat to the species, as the landscape dries out further and wildfires intensify.

Earlier this month Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and other Republican senators, including those from Kansas and Texas, urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland not to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act given ongoing conservation efforts.

"We strongly believe it would be imprudent and harmful to ongoing and unprecedented conservation efforts in our states for the [Fish and Wildlife] Service to issue what would amount to a premature [Endangered Species Act] listing proposal," they wrote.

The fate of the lesser prairie chicken has been a contentious issue for years. Seven years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service named the lesser prairie chicken a threatened species, but that decision was overturned in court. The Trump administration didn't take action, despite being sued by environmental groups. A 2019 settlement required the Service to make a new listing decision by this month.

Jon Hayes, the vice president and executive director of Audubon Southwest, said the Biden administration's decision to divide the prairie chicken's populations "makes a lot of sense" because they are "geographically distinct" and recovery efforts in the southern population "hasn't shown any real observable impact on those birds yet."

"I commend the science folks at the Service and this administration for taking on what's really a challenging issue and having the courage to make the right choice and the science-based choice where the last administration wasn't interested in making any choice really," Hayes said.

 

The lesser prairie chicken - as well as other types of prairie grouse such as the greater prairie chicken and the sage grouse - have lost habitat over generations as agriculture has expanded into native grasslands and cattle grazing has replaced buffalo on the landscape. There are an estimated 27,000 lesser prairie chickens remaining, down from millions.

Published : May 27, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Joshua Partlow, Juliet Eilperin