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Prairie chickens are dying out on the Great Plains. Biden’s efforts to save them could spark fight on key oil patch

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to list lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act could impose restrictions on drilling in the Permian Basin

A Lesser Prairie Chicken in Kansas. (Greg Kramos/USFWS)
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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.

The decision, one of nearly two dozen new conservation measures the administration has adopted in the past four months, underscores President 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 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.

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Although 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.

For a small bird, the lesser prairie chicken has had an outsize impact on 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 lost about 90 percent 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 part of the Permian Basin, one of the most important regions in the country for oil and gas development.

The federal government is proposing two separate designations to try to prevent the species’ demise. The southern population of about 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.

Amy Lueders, a regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters on Wednesday that 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.”

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

“I think it could have a substantial impact on oil and gas and energy development,” said Wayne D’Angelo, a lawyer with the firm Kelley Drye & Warren who has represented energy interests on such issues. “It’s a threat that sort of kills investment and causes problems” if the landowner modifies the birds’ habitat.

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 harm — to 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.

Unlike the endangered listing, the “threatened” designation for the northern group of birds would allow landowners more leeway when the birds are harmed as a result of 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 further threat to the species, as the landscape dries out further and wildfires intensify.

Earlier this month Sen. James M. 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.

Critics of the government’s proposal said it would discourage private landowners from participating in voluntary efforts to make their land habitable for the prairie chickens to avoid the possible liability of inadvertently harming them.

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 Fish and Wildlife 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.

Correction: A photo previously published with this article showed a Greater Prairie Chicken. It has been replaced with an image of a Lesser Prairie Chicken.