Wildlife officials will decide whether prairie chicken needs more protection

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun the process to consider whether to classify the lesser prairie chicken as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

A Fish and Wildlife Service news release blamed habitat loss for the long-term decline in lesser prairie chickens over their historic range, which covers parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, although others say the birds are doing well.

If the species is officially listed, some land-use practices could come under federal scrutiny, and hunting for lesser prairie chickens would likely stop.

Jim Pitman, Kansas small game coordinator, said the birds are doing well in Kansas, where their range runs roughly from Greensburg west and south of I-70.

“Since the mid-’90s we’ve about tripled what was then their known range in Kansas,” Pitman said. “Last spring it was estimated there were 37,000 lesser (rangewide), and Kansas probably has 30,000 of those.”

But some think that’s too few. Two years ago the Kansas Ornithological Society tried — but failed — to get lesser prairie chickens on Kansas’ threatened species list.

Fish and Wildlife will take public comments about the species and management programs for about 90 days. A decision might not come until September.

Fish and Wildlife officials will also review plans by state wildlife, agricultural, energy and conservation groups hoping to bolster lesser prairie chicken numbers.