By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday listed the lesser prairie chicken, a small grassland bird native to parts of the country's oil and gas belt, as "threatened," a move that could draw the ire of some Western lawmakers and energy producers.
"The lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe, citing a "rapid and severe decline" in the species' population.
Energy companies worried that some oil and gas fields could become off-limits to drilling and that the move could also affect wind farms and other activity. A coalition of energy groups termed the listing "not warranted" in a letter to the USFWS this month.
The agency insisted that its approach to the listing, which includes a special provision allowing officials and landowners in five states to manage conservation efforts would "avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development." Environmental activists expressed concern that the provision could hinder efforts to save the bird.
The bird is a gray-brown grouse, smaller and paler than the closely related greater prairie chicken. Once common across much of Southeastern Colorado, Eastern New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, Western Oklahoma and Western Kansas, the bird's historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent.
"Oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have signed up over 3 million acres of land for participation in the states' range-wide conservation plan," said Ashe.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, praised the plan.
"I am very excited to see industry and the states continue to work together on conserving this bird with our jointly developed conservation strategies," Fallin said, adding that without the range-wide plan, Oklahoma's energy and agriculture industries could have been hurt.
But Randy Neugebauer, a Republican representative whose district in east-central Texas is a large agricultural area, said the bird's listing was not needed.
"The timing of this decision is being driven by activist lawsuits, instead of what's best for the species and the communities near its habitat. This listing is a blow to West Texas and every state that has lesser prairie chicken habitat," Neugebauer said.
The group Defenders of Wildlife said the listing was "long overdue" but that the positive impact would be diminished by "overly broad exemptions" for land use.
"We are talking about a species whose population has plummeted to half of its numbers in just one year," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders of Wildlife president.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny)