Game & Fish Dept. opposes protection for lesser prairie chicken
Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration said Monday the lesser prairie chicken’s population has stabilized so there is no need for the bird to receive protection from the federal government.
Cal Baca, chief of wildlife management at the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, said the lesser prairie chicken has a population of 6,000 to 8,000 in New Mexico, all on the east side of the state.
Baca told the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee that the bird is safe already. Granting it federal protection as a threatened species would hurt businesses and be disruptive to private landowners, he said.
Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, challenged Baca during the hearing, questioning how much of his assessment was based on science rather than politics.
“I found his comments to be inappropriate,” Steinborn, right, said afterward. “He ought to be worried about the science and ecology, but he was all over the place.”
Baca told the committee that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had no scientific basis for listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act. But moments later Baca also said that biologists twice thought the lesser prairie chicken had gone extinct.
A grouse found in New Mexico and parts of four other states, the lesser prairie chicken has been a candidate for federal protection since 1998. Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is scheduled to decide by September whether the bird should be listed, though his decision could be delayed for an additional six months.
Even the lesser prairie chicken’s most vigorous advocate, the Center for Biological Diversity, is not optimistic that it will receive federal protection.
Earlier this spring, Jay Lininger of the center said that a special rule pushed by the federal government would decrease the U.S. Endangered Species Act’s normal protections for the lesser prairie chicken. Similar rules weakened protection for polar bears and have been proposed for wolverines, he said.
Lininger said the lesser prairie chicken could vanish from the planet if the U.S. government sticks with policies limiting its habitat.
His organization has frequently sued the government over its handling of the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity says its research shows that the lesser prairie chicken’s range and population have declined by more than 85 percent since the 1800s.
The lesser prairie chicken is about the size of a domestic chicken. It lives in sagebrush and shinnery oak, a plant of the prairie sands.
In addition to the eastern section of New Mexico, the lesser prairie chicken is found in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Martinez’s administration is not the only political entity in New Mexico opposing federal protection for the lesser prairie chicken.
In a memorial without force of law, the state House of Representatives last winter voted 38-29 to oppose listing the bird as threatened. A half-dozen Democrats joined minority Republicans to push through the memorial.