EDMOND, Okla. (AP) — The potential listing of the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species could cause major economic problems for an area of Oklahoma already hit hard by an ongoing drought and dwindling population, business and industry leaders said Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe's office hosted Dan Ashe, the newly confirmed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, during a forum at the University of Central Oklahoma to discuss the fate of the stocky, ground dwelling bird native to western Oklahoma. A similar forum was held Wednesday night in Woodward. Inhofe was unable to attend the forums so he could be in Washington for a critical vote on a transportation funding bill, a spokesman said.
The Wildlife Service currently is conducting a study to determine whether the bird should be listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The bird's natural habitat is prairie grasslands in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Ashe, who visited Oklahoma at Inhofe's request, said that while the potential economic impact on business and industry may be significant, it isn't a factor in determining whether a species is threatened or endangered.
"At this point, the Fish and Wildlife Service is at the point of diagnosis. Is the lesser prairie chicken threatened or endangered?" Ashe said. "And what we consider in the course of making that decision is the biological status of the species and the nature of the threat facing the species."
Officials representing the oil and gas industry, electric utilities, transportation, farmers and ranchers all testified at the forum that listing the bird would threaten their industries in western Oklahoma.
"We do not need to list the lesser prairie chicken and use a federal government stick to get the desired results," said Terry Detrick, president of American Farmers and Ranchers. "This is not our first rodeo. We've seen government incentives become mandates.
"The problem with the federal government is that common sense is not necessarily common."
But environmental groups maintain the bird is a high priority species for listing because its habitat has been reduced to about 8 percent of its historic range, said Mark Salvo, an expert on the bird with the Wild Earth Guardians, which petitioned to have the species listed more than 12 years ago.
"Their population has been estimated at between 10,000 and 50,000, and some experts have warned that fewer than 10,000 may remain," Salvo said. "The sooner that the Service can act to protect the species, not only will it become likely to prevent its extinction, but it will be less expensive, more efficient, and less inconvenient to land owners and users."
Steve Sherrod, executive director of the University of Oklahoma's George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center, described the birds as a "treasure that we need to value."
"I think we have a certain responsibility with this species, as well as with any species," Sherrod said. "We are stewards of this animal that's been here for millions of years."
But Scott Dewald, president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, said cooperative efforts already are under way with landowners in the area to protect the species, and that inclusion of the bird on the list could jeopardize those efforts.
"Once the regulatory hammer falls, the locks go up on the gates," Dewald warned.
Oklahoma's Secretary of the Environment Gary Sherrer formally requested a 24-month extension to the Wildlife Service's timeline in order to give conservation efforts more time to come to fruition. Ashe described the request as "reasonable" and said it will be considered, but he cautioned that he's limited to specific timelines included in the Endangered Species Act.
"We have some flexibility with regard to new scientific information or scientific uncertainties that arise from the information we receive during our period of consideration, but we have to prove that," Ashe said. "I can't just say, 'Sure, we'll give you two more years.' I don't have the flexibility to do that."
Inhofe released a statement Thursday thanking Ashe for visiting the state and urging him to consider an extension.
"The message at these meetings was clear: a listing could have devastating effects on Oklahoma's economy, significantly harming agriculture, the construction of highway infrastructure, and many energy development projects, including a number of wind farms," Inhofe said. "I call on Director Ashe to do the right thing and allow the voluntary efforts already under way in Oklahoma to produce positive results before going through with a listing that could be so detrimental to the state's well-being."
Sean Murphy can be reached at