Is the Lesser Prairie Chicken (“LPC”) dancing its last dance? The little grouse, noted for stomping its feet and inflating the bright orange air sacs at the side of its neck, while emitting an eerie “booming” sound that echoes across the short grass prairie, has seen its numbers drop sharply in recent years. On November 30, 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("USFWS") proposed listing the LPC as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 ("Act"). Read Donald Shandy's December 13 post on possible impacts of the listing on the energy industry. The LPC 's range, includes tens of thousands of acres in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.
The Act prohibits all activities that would harm ("take") a species listed as endangered, unless the activities are otherwise exempted or permitted by the USFWS. For threatened species, Section 4(d) of the Act gives the USFWS authority to tailor the take prohibitions to the particular conservation needs of the species. Typically, that tailoring involves addressing habitat preservation. Habitat fragmentation, modification and degradation within the species' range are the major threats to the LPC. Historic agricultural and livestock grazing land use, and more recent land uses related to wind energy, transmission development, and oil and gas production present challenges to the LPC. Uncontrollable forces, such as the persistent drought in the area, also impact the LPC’s habitat.
For more than a decade impacted stakeholders have created and used voluntary tools to implement conservation actions that preserve the LPC’s range hoping to avoid a listing. A Candidate Conservation Agreement ("CCA") is a voluntary conservation agreement with the USFWS to identify and implement measures designed to address threats to the candidate species. Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances ("CCAAs") provide non-federal landowners with assurances that, as long as the landowners continue habitat conservation efforts, they will not be asked to undertake more than the agreed-upon conservation measures even if the candidate species is later listed or the CCAA is later modified. The USFWS recently approved a CCAA for Oklahoma which is available through the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. The CCAA is free and voluntary, not dependent on the presence of LPCs on the enrolled property, and landowners may opt out at any time.
CCAs and CCAAs may help avoid the listing, but if the LPC is listed, then the conservation measures undertaken through these agreements are already tailored to the particular conservation needs of the species and can become Section 4(d) requirements. Either way, enrolling in voluntary programs and taking advantage of the opportunity to provide public comment and new ideas for preservation of the LPC may allow the LPC to keep on dancing.