NM House opposes U.S. protection for prairie chicken in 39-28 vote
Opponents of federal protection for a rare bird won a moral victory Tuesday in the New Mexico House of Representatives.
House members voted 39-28 for a memorial asking that local officials support efforts to protect the lesser prairie chicken but oppose it being listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, sponsored the memorial, which expresses a sentiment but has no force of law.
Ezzell, right, said jobs would be lost in southeastern New Mexico and the state’s overall economy would be damaged if the prairie chicken received federal protection.
Invoking the Endangered Species Act would stop voluntary efforts by private landowners to coexist with the bird, Ezzell said.
For instance, she said, oil companies in select areas stop drilling during prairie chicken mating season.
Numerous Democrats tried to derail or defeat Ezzell’s memorial.
Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, offered an amendment to rewrite her memorial to gut its opposition to the Endangered Species Act. His proposal was killed by one vote.
Other Democrats, notably Reps. Brian Egolf and Stephen Easley, both of Santa Fe, said Ezzell’s memorial sent the wrong message.
Egolf said voluntary conservation efforts to save the prairie chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard were motivated by “the hammer” that is the Endangered Species Act.
The federal law, approved in 1973 when Richard Nixon was president, serves as a means of encouraging public and private entities to cooperate in trying to save species, thereby preventing federal involvement, Egolf said.
While Ezzell argued for her memorial, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce was preparing to lead a rally in Roswell against a federal listing for the prairie chicken.
Egolf said another reason that he opposed the memorial was that it had “a larger political purposes.”
He said Pearce, a Republican from Hobbs, was behind the state memorial, and that Pearce had routinely opposed any attempt to use the Endangered Species Act.
Rep. Don Bratton, also of Hobbs, said oil and gas account for one-third of New Mexico’s economy.
He said it was appropriate that the state House of Representatives take a stand against listing the prairie chicken because jobs and prosperity were at stake.
Found in five states, the lesser prairie chicken has been a candidate for federal protection since 1998. A recommendation in November by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a yearlong scientific review of whether the lesser prairie chicken should receive federal protection.
The lesser prairie chicken is about the size of domestic chicken. It resembles a larger grouse of the plains, the greater prairie chicken.
Gray-brown in color, the lesser prairie chicken inhabits shinnery oak and sand sagebrush grasslands in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
WildEarth Guardians says the range of lesser prairie chicken has been reduced by more than 90 percent and its population has declined by approximately 85 percent since the 1800s.
In a statement, Pearce said a listing was unnecessary.
“The prairie chicken is yet another example of federal species regulation not based on science, but rather driven by lawyers for extreme interest groups,” he said.