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Lawmakers cry "fowl" over move to help lesser prairie chicken

By Ros Krasny

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A move by U.S. authorities to consider placing a small grassland bird native to parts of the oil and gas belt on the Endangered Species List has drawn the ire of some Western lawmakers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday announced a plan to consider having the lesser prairie chicken listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

The lesser prairie chicken is a medium-sized, gray-brown grouse, smaller and paler than the greater prairie chicken, its close relative.

Once found in abundant numbers across much of Southeastern Colorado, Eastern New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, Western Oklahoma and Western Kansas, the lesser prairie-chicken's historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent, the service said.

Lawmakers in major oil and gas producing districts immediately cried foul.

"A listing will have permanent economic consequences for the people of Texas who live and work in the Permian Basin and the Texas Panhandle," said Representative Michael Conaway, a Republican.

Conaway's sprawling West Texas district produces much of the state's oil and about one-quarter of its gas.

Protecting the lesser prairie-chicken "could drive ranching families and energy producers out of business," said Republican Representative Randy Neugebauer, whose district in East-Central Texas is a large agricultural area.

New Mexico's Steve Pearce, chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, said federal species regulation was being "driven by lawyers for extreme interest groups."

"Listing cannot come soon enough for the lesser prairie chicken," said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe environmental group that at one point sued the federal government in an attempt to protect the birds from oil and gas drilling.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has opened a 90-day comment period on the lesser prairie-chicken and is seeking input from the public and from the scientific community before making its final decision. Four public hearings will be held in February.

In the meantime, a number of state and federal agencies are working on a voluntary conservation planning effort to conserve the bird's habitat.

"Regardless of whether the lesser prairie-chicken ultimately requires protection under the ESA, its decline is a signal that our native grasslands are in trouble," said Benjamin Tuggle, Regional Director for the Service's Southwest Region.

"We know that these grasslands support not only dozens of native migratory bird and wildlife species, but also farmers, ranchers and local communities across the region," Tuggle said.

Lesser prairie chickens are considered "vulnerable," a step short of endangered, by the UK-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, whose "red list" tracks the conservation status of various species worldwide.

(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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