Policy: Environment & Energy

Conservationists seek more protection for grouse

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News,Business,Energy and Environment

DENVER (AP) — Conservation groups say they will go to court to force the Obama administration to do more to save the lesser prairie chicken, arguing a recent federal ruling doesn't stop the energy industry from killing the grouse or encroaching on its habitats in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians notified the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior on Friday that they intended to sue.

Fish and Wildlife recently designated the grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a step below endangered. The designation, to take effect around May 1, worries state officials who are concerned moves to protect the birds will hurt their economies.

The three wildlife groups said in their letter that science supports a determination that the prairie chicken "is currently threatened with extinction and should be listed as an endangered species."

Fish and Wildlife said Thursday it does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation. But on its designation, the service said in a statement that the move "reflects both the urgent need to protect this rapidly declining species and the unique and ongoing role states and landowners play in its conservation."

The environmental groups' letter on Thursday met legal requirements that they give the government 60 days' notice before filing suit. The two months is meant to allow time for parties to come to an agreement without going to court, but Jay Lininger, senior scientist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said that was unlikely. He said the Obama administration has tried to "paper over" protections for endangered species.

In an interview when Fish and Wildlife announced the threatened designation, the service's director Dan Ashe, said the lesser prairie chicken is in dire straits. The grouse known for its colorful neck plume 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 region's drought also has hurt.

Last year, the prairie chicken's population across the five states declined to fewer than 18,000 birds — nearly 50 percent lower than 2012 estimates.

While the birds are not crucial to the ecosystem, they provide a measure of the health of grasslands and prairies.

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