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County leaders: Prairie chicken lawsuit affects residents

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Lesser prairie chickens “brighten up American’s prairies with color, song and personality,” environmental groups say. Some Chaves County officials contend that their shrinking numbers should not be considered as primarily due to ranching, oil and gas, or construction activity. (Submitted Photo)

To the frustration of some Chaves County officials, a federal lawsuit against U.S. government agencies has been filed concerning the lesser prairie chicken, which can be found in the east portion of the county.

Three environmental groups — Defenders of Wildlife based in Washington D.C.; the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona; and the Wildlife Guardians of Santa Fe — have described the grouse species as “severely imperiled.”

They filed suit in mid-June against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a federal district court in the District of Columbia asking that the Fish and Wildlife Service be required to make a decision about whether the chicken should be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

But some Chaves County elected officials have said that they are prepared to fight to keep the bird off the protected list, as they did in a prior lawsuit.

“The environmentalists just keep coming at you and coming at you and coming at you until you give up,” said Will Cavin, chair of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners. “We are not going to give up. We are going to keep that battle going.”

Commissioner Jeff Bilberry added, “It does affect Chaves County and it does affect Chaves County residents, whether you live in the rural (areas) or the city, so we encourage everyone to keep a diligent eye on that.”

The environmental groups acting as plaintiffs in the suit and other environmental activists have written that the chickens’ population numbers have been reduced from about a million to about 38,000 during the past 100 years and that its habitat — which once included most of the southern Great Plains — has shrunk by about 92%.

The chicken can now be found in portions of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. In New Mexico, it can be found in scattered areas of Curry, Roosevelt, De Baca, Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties, although the chicken has been almost eradicated in Lea and Eddy counties, according to the New Mexico Avian Conservation Partners.

According to the lawsuit filing, habitat disruptions are due to oil and gas activity, livestock grazing and utility, road and commercial construction, which has hampered the ability of the birds to engage in their mating behavior. Other groups have stated that significant increases in soil temperatures and lack of rain due to climate change have harmed survival of eggs.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said that their organizations and members have an interest in “observing, studying, and otherwise enjoying the lesser prairie chicken and its habitat” and have in the past and intend in the future to visit the areas where the birds live in order to study or watch the birds.

“Lesser prairie chickens brighten up America’s prairies with color, song and personality,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The environmental groups also said that the mating ritual of the birds depend on having open areas, referred to as leks, to gather. But they contend those areas have largely disappeared over the years.

Efforts to have the chicken considered threatened, which would then require actions to preserve its habitat or increase its population, date back to 1995. Numerous petitions and appeals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were filed over the years, and in response, some federal lands in New Mexico were set aside for the birds.

In April 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to list the species as threatened, but a lawsuit brought by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and several New Mexico counties, including Chaves, was able to reverse that listing. The chicken was removed as a threatened species in July 2016.

The current lawsuit alleges that the Fish and Wildlife Service — which agreed in November 2016 in response to a new petition that listing the chicken might be warranted — was required by law to have rendered a decision by September 2017.

Among other things, the lawsuit asks that the agency be found in violation of the Endangered Species Act for not issuing a decision, and be ordered to publish a ruling by a specific date.

Dan Girand, chair of the Chaves County Land Council, also discussed the issue at a recent meeting, with some council members expressing concern that the environmentalists seek to restrict grazing and oil and gas rather than view the issue as one primarily determined by rain and other natural factors.

Randy Howard, assistant field manager with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said chicken populations might increase next year in New Mexico.

“Number-wise, they were down this year,” he said. “I have been the biologist here for 10 years, so I have been dealing with those for 10 years. The rains weren’t good at the right time last year in the spring, so the numbers were down … But this year, we have had great nest success, so we are hopeful.”

He explained he was talking only about New Mexico, not all five states, and said that here the chicken is found primarily on private lands. He added that the Fish and Wildlife Service personnel have told him that they are gathering data about the situation at this point.

New Mexico and Texas are also affected by an action regarding the dunes sagebrush lizard, as Cavin noted when he discussed environmental groups. The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned to have the lizard listed as threatened or endangered in June 2018. At that time, they said they were primarily concerned with mining activity in Texas. The Fish and Wildlife Service is still reviewing that matter.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.