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Debate about Lesser Prairie Chicken continues in Texas

By Jennifer Kendall, jkendall@ktxs.com
Published On: Mar 07 2013 10:16:44 PM CST
Updated On: Mar 08 2013 08:53:31 AM CST
ABILENE, Texas -

A debate is going on about whether to protect the Lesser Prairie Chicken. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to hold another public comment period this spring before voting on the issue September 30.

Congressman Randy Neugebauer spoke out against the idea because of the impact it could have on farmers, ranchers and energy producers.

"A lot of numbers have dropped because they lose their habitat," said Ryan King, the bird supervisor at the Abilene Zoo. 

Prairie chickens avoid trees, structures and elevated points because their predators use them to nest. In West Texas one particular industry has been taking over a lot of their land.

"The main factor right now for Lessers is the wind farms. Wind farms are such a huge boom up there that they're taking over a lot of their habitat," said King.

Wild Earth Guardians, a non-profit environmental organization, said lesser prairie chickens used to roam freely all over West Texas, but now they only exist in a small area in the North Texas Panhandle. They said as many as 2 million Lesser Prairie Chickens were estimated in Texas before the 1990's. By 2001 their population was down to around 3,000.

If the fowl are added to the threatened species list their habitats would become protected.

Representative Neugebauer said in a statement, "If the lesser prairie chicken is listed as threatened, it will have sweeping consequences for landowners in West Texas and neighboring states." He argued, "In a region suffering from historic drought and a tough economy, we can't afford that." 

The Abilene Zoo helps breed endangered birds like the lesser prairie chicken’s cousin, Attwater's Prairie Chicken. They said when a bird gets put on the list; it's usually a last resort.

"If you don’t put it on the endangered species list than no ones going to know about it, no ones going to do anything about it, and then eventually they're probably going to be gone," said King. 

This spring several states, including Texas, will complete a population survey on the birds. After that the fish and wildlife service will come up with a conservation plan.