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U.S. won’t appeal court rulings on lesser prairie chicken

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The U.S. government said Wednesday that it won’t appeal recent court rulings in Texas that stripped the lesser prairie chicken of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wild Service said in an emailed statement that the Justice Department filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss its appeal of rulings in September 2015 and February 2016 by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. That court ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to make a proper evaluation of a conservation plan from affected states when the agency listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said despite seeking to drop the appeal, it “intends to reassess the status of the species based on the court’s ruling and the best available scientific data.”

“The USFWS will continue working with states, other federal agencies, and partners on efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken across its range,” the statement said.

Oil and gas groups had opposed the threatened listing. The Permian Basin Petroleum Association said it would impede operations and cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas development in one of the country’s most prolific basins, the Permian Basin in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico.

“This is a huge win for New Mexico,” said Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), another vocal opponent of the listing, in a statement. “In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as threatened which was unnecessary and economically harmful. The agency blatantly ignored the already successful conservation efforts carried out by local governments and stakeholders – listing the species anyway.

“While I am happy with the Administration’s decision today, it is disappointing the Administration took this long to realize how successful private landowners and states are at managing the species. I hope in the future they take local conservation efforts into meaningful consideration prior to any listing decision.”

The lesser prairie chicken’s Great Plains habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 1800s, and its population by 99 percent. It lives primarily in Kansas, but also in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. About 95 percent of the bird’s range is on private lands.

In an effort to keep the bird off the endangered species list, the five states organized their own conservation program, offering economic incentives to landowners and companies that set aside land. Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service last year designated the lesser prairie chicken as threatened, one step beneath endangered status. The classification means federal officials think the bird soon will be in danger of extinction.

Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who has long opposed listing the bird for federal protection, noted the Fish and Wildlife Service’s intention to reassess the bird’s status.

“We have certainly not seen the last of the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda,” Roberts said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit in 2014 seeking to force the federal government into more aggressive steps to preserve the lesser prairie chicken, said it was disappointed with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“My fear is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gotten into the routine of bending over backward to do whatever conservative Western states want it to do to such a point that it cannot appeal court orders won by those states against it,” Kieran Suckling, executive director of the nonprofit environmental group, said.

He added that the agency’s statement that it will review the bird’s status is “just an excuse to pretend they’re still taking action” and that a review can take years and even decades.

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