For Immediate Release, July 17, 2023 Photo Credit: USDA-NRCS Gary Kramer
Laura Cunningham, Western Watersheds Project, (775) 513-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 490-0223, email@example.com
Joe Bushyhead, WildEarth Guardians, firstname.lastname@example.org, (505) 660-0284
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy, email@example.com
Legislation Would Harm Lesser Prairie Chickens, Sage Grouse
WASHINGTON― U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) has introduced a must-pass Interior Department appropriations bill with riders that would gut Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the lesser prairie chicken and imperiled populations of sage grouse. The birds all teeter on the brink of extinction.
The House Interior Department appropriations bill cuts funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by $236 million below fiscal year 2023 levels. Riders in this House Interior Appropriations bill continues the long-standing rider preventing ESA protections for the greater sage grouse and the Columbia basin distinct population segment of the greater sage-grouse. The bill also blocks the Interior Secretary from using appropriated money to list the Bi-State distinct population of greater sage grouse found in a small part of the Eastern Sierra of California and adjacent Nevada.
The bill also adds a rider that blocks funding for protection measures for the imperiled lesser prairie chicken, already listed under the ESA, that inhabits the Southern Plains states.
“This is an extinction rider, attempting to subvert a federal scientific review of the declining bi-state and Columbia Basin sage grouse, and strip away Endangered Species Act protections already in place to support the recovery of the critically imperiled lesser prairie chicken,” said Laura Cunningham, California director for Western Watersheds Project. “It’s an attempt at an end run around federal law and the public interest in recovering rare wildlife, using a rider buried in a budget bill that has nothing to do with endangered species protections.”
“The science is clear. These iconic, beautiful American birds are headed for extinction even without this horrible rider,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we strip away protections for these imperiled birds, they won’t have any chance of survival.”
Sage grouse and lesser prairie chickens are famous for their showy plumage and mating dances, during which the males make popping sounds with large, inflated air sacs.
The lesser prairie chicken, a close relative of the sage grouse inhabiting the shortgrass prairies of the Southern Plains, was first petitioned for listing in 1995. After languishing for decades as a candidate species, then seeing its listing rule overturned by industry-led litigation, the species was re-petitioned for listing by conservation groups in 2016. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the birds in 2022 based on scientific evidence that they faced ongoing threats from habitat fragmentation, loss and degradation, principally from agriculture and energy development.
“The lesser prairie chicken waited for decades to be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” said Joe Bushyhead, endangered species attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “The species finally has the protections it needs and a framework for recovery. To undo those protections now is nothing short of cruel.”
Bi-state sage grouse are a geographically isolated, genetically distinct population of greater sage grouse, which live only in an area along the California-Nevada border. There are about 3,300 birds left — far fewer than the 5,000 considered the minimum for population viability.
Sage grouse are threatened by climate change and habitat loss, livestock grazing and predation by ravens. Cattle grazing reduces grass cover for hens and chicks to hide, and raven predation has increased due to trash and human developments.
In April the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would reopen consideration of whether to list the bi-state sage grouse as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The birds were originally proposed for listing as threatened in 2013, but the Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned the proposal in 2015.
In 2018 a federal court found the Service had wrongly denied protections to the birds and required the agency to reevaluate. The bird was again proposed for protection, but in March 2020 the Trump administration withdrew the proposal. Later that year the federal court ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service illegally withdrew its proposal to list the bi-state sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“The Columbia Basin sage grouse population is completely isolated and struggling due to agricultural conversion of its habitats, wind power and transmission projects, and a livestock/cheatgrass/wildfire cycle exacerbated by climate change,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. “This population is already listed under the Washington state Endangered Species Act and should also be federally protected.”
The House appropriations bill will be marked up in committee on Wednesday and likely will make its way to the House floor.
Lesser prairie chickens inhabit the ancestral homelands of the Comanche, Apache, Kansa, Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ponca peoples. Bi-state sage grouse are found on lands originally inhabited by the Washoe and Paiute peoples. Columbia Basin sage grouse inhabit the traditional lands of the Yakama, Salish, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla, Okanagan and Spokane tribes.
Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit environmental conservation organization working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
WildEarth Guardians is a conservation non-profit whose mission is to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Follow Guardians on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates.