KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Last year was apparently rough for lesser prairie chickens, a rare grouse that has been a candidate for federal protection for years and is now proposed for inclusion under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2012, there were an estimated 34,000 lesser prairie chickens across their grassland range, which includes portions of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Kansas is home to about half the country's lesser prairie chicken population.
This year's survey, which was conducted from March through May for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, showed the bird's population has declined by about half, down to an estimated 17,600 total in the five states.
The decline was largely attributed to drought, which also decimated the bird's population in the 1990s when it was first proposed for federal protection, said Jim Pitman, small game coordinator the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
"The important thing is the grassland is still there," Pitman said. Once the grasslands regenerate from wet weather, the bird population will also increase, he said.
The lesser prairie chicken has been the subject of several attempts by conservation groups who say the bird is headed for extinction unless it gains protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year proposed listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the ESA largely because of huge declines in the bird's population and the loss of vast swaths of its natural grassland habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to have a decision by March 2014.
Several landowners, state wildlife agencies and oil, gas and wind energy companies have opposed the federal listing for the bird because they say federal recognition could lead to more regulations and impede their development.
An alternative conservation plan to federal listing has been developed by WAFWA and in part involves getting landowners to help conserve the birds. Its goal is a population of about 67,000 lesser prairie chickens in 10 years.
That approach, however, is "too little, too late" and won't be fast enough to stop the bird from becoming extinct, said Jay Lininger, with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
"Drought and habitat destruction are devastating the small remaining populations of this magnificent grassland bird," Lininger said in a release after the survey results were announced. "These vanishing birds need the protection that only the Endangered Species Act can provide if they're going to survive."