HSE & Sustainability

Prairie Chickens Are Dying Out on the Great Plains; Biden’s Efforts To Save Them Could Spark Fight on Key Oil Patch

The US Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to list the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act could impose restrictions on drilling in the Permian Basin.

A lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.
Credit: Greg Kramos/USFWS.

The Biden administration called for new protections under the Endangered Species Act for an iconic bird of the Great Plains, a move with major consequences for the oil and gas industry.

US Fish and Wildlife Service officials proposed listing as endangered a portion of the lesser prairie chicken’s population living in Texas and New Mexico, whose range overlaps with the oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin. The agency stopped short of awarding the same protections to the birds’ northern population, in Oklahoma and Kansas, on the grounds that their numbers had declined less drastically.

The decision, one of nearly two dozen new conservation measures the administration has adopted in the past four months, underscores President Biden’s push to unravel his predecessor’s environmental policies. In a separate move, the Environmental Protection Agency abolished a rule restricting what sort of studies the agency can use in crafting public health rules.

Biden has targeted Trump’s energy and environmental policies or proposed one of his own at the rate of about one a day, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Although administration officials have emphasized the need to heed scientific findings on climate change and other pressing environmental threats, the actions highlight the difficult terrain they must navigate.

For a small bird, the lesser prairie chicken has had an outsize impact on national politics.

It has roamed millions of acres over several states in the Great Plains, grasslands that have been carved up over the years to make way for corn and soybean fields, sprawling cities, and the Midwestern drilling rigs used to suck oil and gas out of the ground. The chickens have lost about 90% of their historic population, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said.

As its numbers have dwindled, conflicts over whether to protect the bird—and potentially hamper energy development in conservative-leaning states—have only intensified. Its range overlaps part of the Permian Basin, one of the more important regions in the country for oil and gas development.

The federal government is proposing two separate designations to try to prevent the species’ demise. The southern population of about 5,000 birds living along the New Mexico/Texas border would be considered endangered, while a northern group would be listed as threatened, a less-restrictive designation. After taking input from the public, the agency will make a final decision on these listings within a year.

Read the full story here.