From: Center for Biological Diversity
Published September 25, 2013 06:16 AM

Lesser Prairie Chicken numbers decline sharply

Lesser prairie chicken population numbers dropped by more than 50 percent over the past year, according to a study released today. The finding raises questions about the adequacy of voluntary conservation measures proposed today for the rare grouse in a final rangewide conservation plan intended to preclude the need for Endangered Species Act protections.

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"Drought and habitat destruction are devastating the small remaining populations of this magnificent grassland bird," said Jay Lininger with the Center for Biological Diversity.  "Voluntary measures are too little, too late, and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction. These vanishing birds need the protection that only the Endangered Species Act can provide if they're going to survive."

The study, by Western EcoSystems Technology Inc. of Laramie, Wyo., estimates the total population size at 17,616 individuals in 2013, more than a 50 percent drop from the 2012 estimate of 34,440 birds. The study also estimated there to be 2,036 occupied breeding areas (known as leks) in 2013 — a decline of more than 30 percent from the 2012 estimate of 2,930 leks.

Prairie chicken habitat has declined overall by as much as 92 percent, according to federal scientists, and threats from habitat loss and fragmentation will increase with proposed energy developments, agricultural conversions and other land uses anticipated under the new rangewide conservation plan. Only 71 patches of habitat as large as 25,000 acres — the area required for effective chicken strongholds — exist within the entire five-state occupied range.

The conservation plan announced today sets a 10-year population goal of 67,000 prairie chickens range-wide. However, it would designate "focal areas" of habitat that are less than half the size required to maintain breeding populations. The total acreage of the focal areas is less than 35 percent of the bird’s currently occupied habitat and only 6 percent of the historical range of the species.

"We're disappointed the plan locks the lesser prairie chicken into small areas of habitat, precludes their recovery, and gives blanket approval to industrial activities that are pushing them to extinction," Lininger said.

The prairie chicken was proposed for Endangered Species Act protection in December, but under a special rule added to the proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May, habitat-destroying activities by parties that voluntarily adopt the new plan's mitigation strategy would be allowed to continue.

Photo courtesy USFWS.

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