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Congress votes to overturn federal protections of lesser prairie chicken found in Oklahoma

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The Biden administration listed the species of endangered prairie grouse known as the lesser prairie chicken on the Endangered Species Act last November. Six months later, the U.S. senate voted to overturn the bird’s ESA listing.

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to do the same on a bill that would delist the bird as well as the northern long-eared bat. President Joe Biden has already promised to veto a bill that would delist these animals, making it more difficult for congress to gather the votes needed to overpower a presidential veto.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over the past 30 years, the lesser prairie chicken has been the center of political attention. It’s been listed and delisted as an endangered species several times.

The lesser prairie chicken needs connected tallgrass prairie to survive. Their range is in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico. Each state has some areas that have adequate habitat for the bird. In Oklahoma, their best habitat is the northwest region of the state, but the biggest issue the bird faces is that the habitats do not connect, said the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“You might find a couple of thousand acres in one county, and a couple of thousand acres of good quality habitat in another county,” said Kurt Kuklinski, a wildlife diversity and research supervisor for the Department. The development of roads, gas and oil industry, and overfarming and overgrazing have created pockets that have suitable habitat for the lesser prairie chicken.

That makes the bird susceptible to population decline because lesser prairie chickens from one core population cannot travel and interact with birds from another core group, he said. According to the Audubon Society, Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations have declined by 97 percent across their range since nationwide bird monitoring began in the 1960s.

Whether or not the bird is delisted or federally regulated, the Department of Wildlife Conservation said it won’t change the fact there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make the state more habitable for the prairie chicken.

Kuklinski said Oklahoma’s private landowners want to better conserve the prairie chicken without the intervention of federal regulations.

“I think it's cultural because a lot of the landowners that homesteaded in Oklahoma worked hard through blood, sweat, and tears to develop a sustainable ranching or farming operation,” he said. “We have to continue to work with our private landowners in the state in a cooperative manner, to continue to put quality habitat on the ground.”

Kuklinski said private landowners in Oklahoma want to be good stewards of the land. “They've shown that they're willing to contribute to the conservation of this species through voluntary programs,” he said.

Wildlife biologists are working in the northwest region of the state with private landowners to help them understand the various conservation programs they can enroll in for cash incentives, said Kuklinski. Some of these programs allow landowners to get paid by acreage to turn some of their land into prairie that is suitable for the lesser prairie chicken.

But what farmers and ranchers don’t want is a heavy-handed federal approach where somebody says you must do the following on land that is theirs that they own, he said.

Despite this, federally listing animals that could go extinct has prevented extinction for 99 percent of the species the Endangered Species Act has protected since 1973.

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Britny Cordera has been StateImpact Oklahoma's environment and science reporter since July 2023.
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