WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Thursday it is placing a grassland grouse known as the lesser prairie chicken on a list of threatened species, a move that could affect oil and gas drilling, wind farms and other activities in five central and southwestern states.
The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a step below "endangered" status and allows for more flexibility in how protections for the bird will be carried out under the Endangered Species Act.
Dan Ashe, the agency's director, said he knows the decision will be unpopular with governors in the five affected states — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico — but said the agency was following the best science available.
"The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits," Ashe said in an interview. "The bird is in decline and has been in decline for more than a decade."
The prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its colorful neck plume and stout build, has lost more than 80 percent of its traditional habitat, mostly because of human activity such as oil and gas drilling, ranching and construction of power lines and wind turbines, Ashe said. The bird, which weighs from 1-1/2 to 2 pounds, has also been severely impacted by the region's ongoing drought.
Biologists say a major problem is that prairie chickens fear tall structures, where predators such as hawks can perch and spot them. Wind turbines, electricity transmission towers and drilling rigs are generally the tallest objects on the plains.
Last year, the prairie chicken's population across the five states declined to fewer than 18,000 birds — nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 population estimates.
A conservation plan adopted by the five states has a goal of increasing the population to 67,000 birds. While the birds are not crucial to the ecosystem, their presence and population provide a measure of the health of grasslands and prairies. More than 80 percent of the bird's habitat is on private land.
Oil companies have said potential new regulations would impede their operations and would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas development in one of the country's most prolific basins, the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico.
Fish and Wildlife officials had refused nearly two years ago to list the species as threatened, and efforts across the region have brought about conservation agreements and habitat protection plans from landowners, the oil and gas industry and those aiming to increase the prairie chicken's numbers.
The listing decision, which will take effect around May 1, includes a special rule that Ashe said will allow officials and private landowners in the five affected states to manage conservation efforts. The rule, which Ashe called unprecedented, specifies that activities such as oil and gas drilling and utility line maintenance that are covered under a five-state conservation plan adopted last year will be allowed to continue.
The plan, developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, establishes that conservation practices carried out through usual agricultural and energy development are not subject to further regulation under the Endangered Species Act.
Governors of the five affected states — including four Republicans — opposed listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act. In a joint statement last year, Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and John Hickenlooper of Colorado said their states have all worked with a wide variety of affected groups to develop conservation plans to improve the bird's habitat while "taking into account economic development needs."
All but Hickenlooper are Republicans.
Oklahoma's attorney general filed a lawsuit this month over the Obama administration's decision to settle a lawsuit with an environmental group over the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken and other species. Attorney General Scott Pruitt claims in the lawsuit that federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups and using "sue and settle" tactics that encourage lawsuits that can be settled on terms favorable to the groups that filed them.
Ashe denied collusion with any group and said the agency hopes to avoid litigation over the listing decision.
Oil and gas companies, ranchers and other landowners have pledged to devote more than 3 million acres in the five states toward conserving the bird's habitat. Most of the acreage was set aside with the aim to prevent the bird from being given federal protection as a threatened species, but Ashe said states and private landowners will play a significant role after the listing decision.
"The key thing is, states will remain in the driver's seat in management and conservation of this bird," he said.
Environmental groups hailed new federal protections, but said the wildlife agency had created a loophole that allows continued oil and gas drilling in exchange for voluntary conservation plans that are virtually unenforceable.
"This is an emergency situation that requires the strongest protections possible," said Jay Lininger, senior scientist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. "Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned its back and relied on voluntary conservation plans that only amount to a wink and a nod with no accountability."
A consortium of oil and gas industry groups said the industry's effect on lesser prairie chickens is "poorly understood but likely to be negligible." Potential impacts can be mitigated through voluntary conservation plans, the group said in comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service before the ruling was announced.
"Adding another layer of regulation on the oil and gas industry in a region that is key to America's energy future and for which there is no clear environmental benefit runs counter to this administration's stated approach to energy and regulation," the group said. The 10-member group includes the American Petroleum Institute, the chief lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry, as well as America's Natural Gas Alliance, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.