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Lesser Prairie ChickenIn a move that has drawn sharp criticism from environmental groups, on May 15 the U.S. House passed the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1735) that included an amendment that would de-list the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as a threatened species. The amendment, authored by Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, passed in a 229-190 vote and would bar Endangered Species Act protection for both the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and the American Burying Beetle for at least five years.

This comes on the heels of the release of a report by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) estimating an increase in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken population of 20 percent or around 22,400 birds and the amount of the bird’s habit that is impacted by industry development has decreased 23 percent. In addition, industry partners committed $45.9 million in fees to pay for mitigation efforts and landowners across the range agreed to conserve nearly 40,000 acres of habitat.

The report, which was submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in April, is the first annual report detailing achievements under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC) Range-wide Conservation Plan (RWP). The RWP was developed in partnership with Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas to increase the population of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken through voluntary conservation efforts.

“The results from the first year of RWP implementation clearly demonstrate that both industry and landowners are willing to conserve the species,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA’s grassland coordinator.

Rep. Lucas says his amendment was designed to remove regulatory hurdles for military training operations looking to develop projects that would affect the species’ habitat.

“This amendment ensures our military may continue to operate on its own schedule, rather than waiting on approval from an agency bureaucrat,” Lucas said.

In a statement against the amendment, the Center for Biological Diversity called Rep. Lucas’ claims fraudulent, as the current range of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken does not overlap with any U.S. military bases and the Defense Department has been a partner in conserving the American Burying Beetle since 1989.

“This partisan vote isn’t about military readiness. It’s about the deep antipathy that most Republicans now direct at endangered species, especially those that get in the way of the oil and gas industry,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Republicans know that the overwhelming majority of Americans support the Endangered Species Act, so now they are trying to sidestep the Act and science and throw the less well-known species off the ark in the dead of night. Condemning a species to extinction under the pretense of supporting the military is a travesty.”

The measure still has to clear the Senate and be signed by the President who has already threatened to veto the bill in part due to its inclusion of “nongermane provisions.”