ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Facing an uphill court fight, the U.S. government announced Tuesday it was formally removing the lesser prairie chicken from a federal protection list under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the move follows recent court rulings in Texas that stripped the lesser prairie chicken of federal protection. However, federal officials say the removal didn't mean authorities had concluded the lesser prairie chicken didn't warrant federal protection for biological reasons.
"The service is undertaking a thorough re-evaluation of the bird's status and the threats it faces using the best available scientific information to determine anew whether listing under the ESA is warranted," the agency said.
The previous rulings found that Fish and Wildlife failed to make a proper evaluation of a multistate conservation plan when it listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.
Oil and gas groups had strongly opposed the threatened listing. The Permian Basin Petroleum Association said it would impede operations and cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas development in one of the country's most prolific basins, the Permian Basin in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico.
Ranchers also opposed the listing.
The lesser prairie chicken's Great Plains habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 1800s, and its population by 99 percent. It lives primarily in Kansas, but also in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. About 95 percent of the bird's range is on private lands.
To keep the bird off the endangered species list, the five states organized their own conservation program, offering economic incentives to landowners and companies that set aside land. Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service last year designated the lesser prairie chicken as threatened, one step beneath endangered status. The classification means federal officials think the bird soon will be in danger of extinction.
"The storied prairie landscape of the Southwest is of tremendous economic and cultural importance. It is also a critical area for the birds, mammals, reptiles and other animals that rely on this unique habitat," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said Tuesday. "Responding to this court ruling by removing the bird from the Federal List does not mean we are walking away from efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Far from it."
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said she's worried the agency still is re-evaluating the bird's status. "The agency did choose not to appeal the listing in this particular case, but it is not precluded from trying to list a second time," she said.
Still, state officials where the lesser prairie chicken roamed praised the Fish and Wildlife Service decision. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said it was "good news for private property rights, the rural Kansas economy and common sense."
In 2014, Kansas enacted a law saying the state has the sole power to regulate the lesser prairie chicken — along with the larger, darker and more abundant greater prairie chicken — and their habitats within Kansas. It authorizes the attorney general or county prosecutors to sue over federal attempts to impose conservation measures.
Associated Press writer John D. Hanna in Topeka, Kansas contributed to this report.