The lesser prairie-chicken resides in the plains of southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and throughout the sandhills of the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico. This stocky game bird, with a round body and small head, lives in the fragmented areas of shrub-mixed grass, short-grass and mixed-grass prairie habitats between wheat fields and rangeland. Unfortunately, noise pollution from surrounding area development projects can interfere with the lesser prairie-chicken’s mating rituals as males gather on “booming grounds” and make hollow gobbling sounds to attract females.
In June 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued a proposed rule in the Federal Register to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Listing the lesser prairie-chicken under the ESA and providing energy resources is a balancing act. The change in listing status would benefit the native prairie bird by protecting valuable habitat. This change would also have implications for energy companies, consumers and utilities. The natural habitat for these birds is also land that provides both renewable and nonrenewable energy resources.
The proposal submitted by the USFWS differentiates between two populations of this species, also identified as Distinct Population Segments (DPS). The northern DPS — found in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and the northeastern portion of the Texas Panhandle — would be listed as threatened. The southern DPS — found in New Mexico and the southwestern portion of the Texas Panhandle — would be listed by the USFWS as endangered.
If the lesser prairie-chicken is listed under the ESA, and the USFWS designates the species’ natural territory as critical habitat, there could be significant regulatory impacts, which would restrict access to certain lands and increase costs for oil, gas and renewable energy projects. Specifically, the Anadarko Basin in western Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle, and the Permian Basin in West Texas and eastern New Mexico, are significant regions in the U.S. for oil and gas extraction. These areas also provide suitable sites for wind turbines, which offer renewable energy for the Southwest.
If the proposed rule is finalized, developers and energy utilities should thoughtfully plan for projects to avoid additional biological scrutiny from agencies. The rule could increase the amount of time needed to permit projects within the range of the lesser prairie-chicken and could also lead to increased project costs. Currently, tax credits are creating an environment that supports building wind turbines, solar farms and other renewable energy projects. These projects need to meet specific deadlines to receive tax credits, but listing the lesser prairie-chicken under the ESA could slow down site development.
The proposed rule has been met with criticism by energy companies that previously enrolled in ESA Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances for the species. Individual wind turbines, wells or solar panels can be positioned to circumvent species and habitats, but large-scale developments would have less flexibility without increasing project costs.
The passage of this rule would require energy companies and utilities to evaluate cost, location and time. If an alternate project site outside of the range of the lesser prairie-chicken would be feasible, development could proceed on time, at a lower or more reasonable cost, and with less interference. For a project within the range of the lesser prairie-chicken, developers might need to build in additional time and resources to stay in compliance. Before starting construction, developers should plan for habitat assessments, endangered species surveys and coordination with federal agencies. After a project is complete, a developer can expect some continual environmental monitoring.
Building energy projects on valuable habitat land requires an understanding of the regulatory process. To comply with the Endangered Species Act, developers may need to pursue a biological assessment and develop a conservation plan.