ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The status of a bird found in a handful of Western and Midwestern states has become more dire due to the loss of its native prairie habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday announced a change in the listing priority of the lesser prairie chicken with the release of the agency's annual review of candidates for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The lesser prairie chicken, a stocky ground-dwelling bird found in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, has been on the candidate list for more than a decade. The Fish and Wildlife Service said new information prompted raising the bird's priority number from 8 to 2, one of the most urgent categories.
"It shows that it deserves to be looked at for Endangered Species Act protection sooner than the others," said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman with the agency's Southwest Region.
Conservation groups have been pushing the federal agency to grant the lesser prairie chicken protection under the ESA for years, saying the bird has declined by more than 90 percent over the past century and is facing threats that include energy development, climate change and the loss of habitat.
Despite its status as a candidate, Slown said the lesser prairie chicken is not on the agency's work plan for this fiscal year. That means it could be next September before the agency considers doing a review to determine whether to list the bird.
The Fish and Wildlife Service along with the Bureau of Land Management, an oil and gas company and a New Mexico rancher signed conservation agreements aimed at protecting the lesser prairie chicken during a ceremony this week in Albuquerque.
Those who participate in the program voluntarily agree to conservation measures that protect and restore habitat for the bird in southeast New Mexico. In return, if the chicken is given protection under the ESA, landowners are assured they will not be required to do more than they have pledged through the conservation program.
Slown said the agency hopes more landowners and companies will join the program, resulting in a wider range of the chicken's habitat being protected.
Conservationists have been crying foul this week, saying the agreements are simply a means to avoid listing a species that clearly needs more protection to ensure its survival.
"Why is the Fish and Wildlife Service spending staff time and resources shuffling paper ... rather than proposing the species for listing?" asked Nicole Rosmarino of the Western conservation group WildEarth Guardians.
Rosmarino said the bird must be listed, "not papered over with these very uncertain conservation agreements."
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, lesser prairie chickens in the early 20th century were common throughout their five-state range. By the 1930s, cultivation, grazing and drought started to cause the species to disappear from areas where it had been abundant.
Along with the lesser prairie chicken, 10 other species' priority numbers changed during this year's candidate review. The agency said four species are now listed as higher priorities and seven were lowered.
Two species — the Ogden mountainsnail, a mollusk species found in Utah, and the Florida indigo, a plant species native to tropical regions — were removed from the list. One was added — the Gierisch mallow, a plant species found in Arizona and Utah.
The agency now recognizes 251 species as candidates for ESA protection.