ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. | Federal wildlife officials on Tuesday agreed to reconsider the status of a grouse found in pockets across the Great Plains as environmentalists fight to return the bird to the list of protected species.
The lesser prairie chicken was removed from the threatened and endangered species list earlier this year following court rulings in Texas and a decision by government lawyers not to pursue an appeal.
Environmentalists responded by petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take another look at the bird. They argued that emergency protections are needed for isolated populations of the bird along the Texas-New Mexico border, in Colorado and western Kansas.
“This is a bird that used to number in the millions and now in recent years it has declined to roughly 25,000 birds. The population that straddles Kansas and Colorado, for example, may already be gone. So it’s still very much losing ground,” said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The lesser prairie chicken’s Great Plains habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 1800s. It lives primarily in Kansas, but also in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, with most of its range on private lands.
To keep the bird off the endangered species list, the 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 meant federal officials thought the bird soon would be in danger of extinction.
Oil and gas groups opposed the listing, saying it would impede operations and cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the country’s most prolific basins — the Permian Basin, which stretches from West Texas into eastern New Mexico.
They took their case to court, where a federal judge found that the agency failed to make a proper evaluation of the multistate conservation plan.
Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, said he was disappointed with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision. He said the conservation plan marks an unprecedented effort in which more than 10 million acres have been voluntarily enrolled and more than $60 million has been invested by the industry.
He said the bird’s populations have been increasing since 2012 and the trend is expected to continue under the plan.
The oil and gas industry and state officials are still worried that relisting the grouse could hamper drilling, renewable energy development and agriculture.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, said President Barack Obama’s administration is disregarding the court ruling and trying to jam through “decisions with questionable scientific support in the eleventh hour.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to finish its review by midsummer, long after a new administration takes the reins in Washington.
The agency has more than 300 status reviews pending for species that have been petitioned for protection.