A federal court in Texas has vacated Endangered Species Act protections for the lesser prairie chicken.
Tuesday’s ruling is a victory for Texas oil and gas companies that argued that conservation efforts are working. The Permian Basin Petroleum Association said regulations would impede operations and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas development in one of the country’s most prolific basins.
The bird’s endangered status has been controversial in Kansas as well, where the state is home to half the prairie chicken population. The congressional delegation from Kansas has led efforts to revoke the bird’s federal protections, which lawmakers say impose burdensome regulations and land-use restrictions on businesses and landowners.
The U.S. Senate in January rejected an amendment by GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas to remove the lesser prairie chicken from the government’s threatened species list.
On Wednesday, Moran said the court’s ruling in Texas confirmed what he and others from Kansas had been telling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all along — that increased rainfall and local conservation efforts helped the birds more than federal regulations: “We don’t need burdensome federal government regulations dictating land use practices and hindering our rural economy.”
The lesser prairie chicken is a species of grouse with feathered feet and striped plumage that lives in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity said Wednesday that the bird has lost 85 percent of its habitat.
In 2013, the year before it received the threatened designation from Fish and Wildlife, the lesser prairie chicken population hit a record low of 17,616.
But the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies says the population increased by 25 percent this year to 29,000 birds.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Kansas Republican, on Wednesday praised the court’s decision to vacate the listing: “As the American economy continues to struggle, our actions should encourage growth not hinder economic efforts. This ruling gets government out of the way, puts states back in charge of conservation efforts and corrects a decision that should never have been made.”
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican, said the congressman hoped to see more done to limit enforcement of federal engangered species rules, saying that “Congressman Yoder is encouraged by (District Judge Robert) Junell’s order to vacate the lesser prairie chicken’s status as a threatened species.”
The judge’s decision angered conservation groups.
Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement to The Hill: “This decision turns the Endangered Species Act on its head by concluding the Fish and Wildlife Service should have given the benefit of the doubt to the oil and gas industry, rather than a species that has seen its habitat and populations vanish.”
The Star’s Ian Cummings Lindsay Wise of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.