US Announces Protections for Two Rare Midwest Prairie Birds

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Nattapong Assalee/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Nov. 17, the US government announced it would instate protections for two Midwest prairie bird species. One of those species is the lesser prairie chicken, which often lives in oil-rich fields. Some of the bird’s habitat extends into the Permian Basin, which sits along the New Mexico-Texas state line. It also lives in parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

The lesser prairie chicken has significantly diminished across 90% of its habitat, according to a report from The Hill. The southwest regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Amy Lueders, told the outlet, “The lesser prairie chicken’s decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril.”

So, for the government to implement protections for two species of grouse is monumental for US grasslands and prairies. It’s reported that the lesser prairie chicken now numbers only 30,000 when previously they had populations in the millions. The species is constantly in peril from oils and gas development due to the areas where it lives. It’s also in danger from grazing animals and urban encroachment.

Lesser Prairie Chicken To Receive Protections From the US Government

In late January 2023, the protections will go into place. They will cover populations in the Texas panhandle and southern New Mexico, where they’re endangered. In their northern range, they’re considered threatened, which is not as severe as their endangered status, but still not great for the species.

Previously, it seems like there was some success with voluntary conservation efforts. But, the birds in the southern region are not as resilient. Their numbers have dropped to about 1,000 in 2016 and 2022 after severe droughts.

Apparently, the lesser prairie chicken was considered threatened in 2014, but the status was reversed two years later. Court rulings determined that the government hadn’t taken the voluntary conservation programs into account.

According to The Hill, landowners and companies that are actively participating in voluntary conservation programs won’t be affected by the new protections and guidelines. They are already making an effort to preserve habitats. The new protections will prohibit actions that cause loss of habitat.

More than 9,375 square miles of prairie habitat are protected by conservation efforts made this spring. Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said that these new protections are great for the lesser prairie chicken, but they’re still a little late in terms of the species as a whole and its future populations. The initial petition for protection for the species was filed in 1995.

“We wish that the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t delayed this protection for 27 years,” Robinson told The Hill, “because quicker action would have meant a lot more lesser prairie chickens alive in a lot more places today.”