Congress votes today on whether the lesser prairie chicken -= a popular southwestern game bird — should have its status as “endangered” overturned.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., co-sponsored the resolution. Last year, the U.S. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Mike Leahy, senior director of wildlife, hunting and fishing policy for the National Wildlife Federation, said the move would not only remove protections for the bird today, it could eliminate the possibility of future federal protections.
“This a really big deal,” Leahy stressed. “Congress revoking protections and resources for a wildlife species that really needs them would be a big blow to science-based management of wildlife in the United States, which is how we’re supposed to do it.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and conservation groups argued the lesser prairie chicken serves as critical measure of the health of America’s grasslands, because they require large areas of intact native grasslands to thrive. Habitat loss and fragmentation have shrunk lesser prairie chicken populations from hundreds of thousands historically, down to around 30,000 in surveys last year.
According to Leahy, losing the lesser prairie chicken would be a lot like losing the ruffed grouse in West Virginia. He pointed out it would affect hunters, bird watchers, and local communities.
“If ruffed grouse continue to decline in West Virginia and elsewhere as much as lesser prairie chickens have, biologist should be able to determine how much trouble they’re in, and get local landowners the resources they need to restore their habitat, and recover their populations without politics getting in the way,” Leahy contended.
About 95% of the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat is on privately owned land, according to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative.