Republican congressional leaders including New Mexico’s U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell are fighting a proposal to provide federal protections to the lesser prairie chicken in multiple western states, arguing such government action would stymie oil and gas and other industries in the region.
In June 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating the species as “endangered” in a southern population zone, encompassing southeast New Mexico and West Texas – the Permian Basin region known as the U.S.’ most active oilfield.
A northern population of the chicken was proposed for a “threatened” designation, covering the northern Texas panhandle, and areas of Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma.
An endangered designation means a species’ extinction is imminent, and entails the federal government restricting some land uses and activities that would kill individual chickens while also requiring the government to devise a plan to recover the species’ population.
Threatened status means a species is likely to meet the standards for threatened soon, and the federal government takes similar but less-restrictive steps to prevent that elevation of status.
If either a listing as endangered or threatened was ultimately made, Herrell said it would prove damaging to the oil and gas industry in New Mexico, which is contained within her southern Second Congressional District, and a key driver of the state’s economy.
Her comments came during a recent hearing on endangered species of the all-Republican Congressional Western Caucus discussing the impacts of federal conservation efforts on industry.
Herrell herself was recently named ranking member of the House Oversight Committee’s environmental subcommittee and is an ardent supporter of oil and gas and opponent of increased government regulations.
She’s up for reelection in November, running against Democrat former-Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez, and energy and its impact on the environment was a central theme of both campaigns.
“Unfortunately, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the lesser prairie chicken as endangered in my district, which is both unfair and unjustified,” Herrell said.
“A listing would also have a negative impact on industries both vital to New Mexico’s economy and our national security like energy production and agricultural operations.”
Local efforts, Herrell said, were sufficient without “government overreach,” and led to the species’ population throughout the U.S. “doubling” between 2013 and 2020 from about 15,000 to 30,000 birds.
She said landowners and both the fossil fuel and agriculture industries were already taking it upon themselves to reduce threats the bird.
Research showed the lesser prairie chicken once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and environmentalist groups argued the population growth cited by Herrell and other industry supporters was not meaningful progress to protect the species from extinction.
This alleged failure by the government to protect the lesser prairie chicken was the motivation behind a series of lawsuits filed since the 1990s, with the latest coming from the Center for Biological Diversity which filed a notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service on Aug. 11, arguing the agency failed to provide a decision in June, 12 months after the latest listing proposal.
Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center who works from Silver City, said despite efforts from landowners and industries in the area, the lesser prairie chicken warranted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
He cited the law’s provisions that a species be listed if it meets the law’s criteria for ongoing destruction of habitat and range, overutilization of habitat for commercial purposes and inadequacy of present regulations.
“The fact is the lesser prairie chicken is gone from the vast majority of its range. It’s losing habitat and in danger of extinction,” Robinson said. “This is progressively happening. Under the law, they qualify as endangered.”
Oil and gas operations were especially problematic for the bird’s survival, Robinson said, as the industry not only produces greenhouse gases, he said that pollute the animal’s habitat but the installation of tall structures like oil rigs prevent it the chicken from breeding and being able to move through its range.
Lesser prairie chickens are known to avoid tall structure as they can be perches for birds of prey.
“The lesser prairie chicken needs its habitat protected right now,” Robinson said. “We need to be making a transition as quickly as possible away from greenhouse gas-emitting fuel production. They’re causing all kinds of crisis for the lesser prairie chicken and for other species including humans.”
In Carlsbad the non-profit Center for Excellence (CEHMM) hoped to strike a balance allowing industries like fossil fuel production to coexist with wildlife and local conservation efforts.
That takes the form of candidate conservation agreements (CCAs), contracts signed by landowners to take on some conservation practices to prevent the take, or killing, of the species in exchange for being insulated from further restrictions should a listing occur.
CEHMM facilitates those agreements through a partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Executive Director Emily Wirth said before the Western Congressional Caucus that the work is already proving successful.
Since the program began in 2008, Wirth said 42 oil and gas operators and 2 million acres were enrolled in the agreements, along with 72 ranchers and up to 1.8 million acres to conserve the lesser prairie chicken.
The program removed invasive mesquite from habitat areas, installing fencing and improving other infrastructure to prevent impacts to the bird, Wirth said.
A similar program by CEHMM for the dunes sagebrush lizard, Wirth said, prevented a listing for federal protection despite several petitions and concerns of impacts from oil and gas she said were mitigated through the agreements.
“We have shown success with our program,” she said. “I think you can show success just in the number of acres, the number of partners that are on the landscape actively working together and implementing conservation.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.