The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to list two populations of the lesser prairie-chicken for greater protection under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could impact the operations, construction and maintenance work of electric cooperatives in five western states.

The agency is recommending the lesser prairie-chicken's southern distinct population segments for a listing as endangered and its northern segments as threatened with a special rule to exempt routine agricultural activities on existing farmland and prescribed fire for grassland management.

The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on June 1, launching a 60-day public comment period. FWS will hold two virtual public hearings, July 8 and July 14, and a final rule is expected in May 2022.

The bird's southern population is found in the sand shinnery oak prairies of eastern New Mexico and the western Texas panhandle. The northern populations live in the short grass, sand sagebrush and mixed grass ecoregions of eastern Colorado, western Kansas and Oklahoma, and the northeast panhandle of Texas.

The FWS estimates that the species' average population has dropped to 27,384 birds across its five-state range, based on aerial surveys from 2012 to 2020. Declines are due to the loss of 90% of its habitat across its historical range.

The FWS specifically identifies transmission and distribution lines as impacting the lesser prairie-chicken's habitat. How the agency will treat impacts from existing power lines remains unknown.

New electric infrastructure could face case-by-case reviews by the FWS for potential impacts, and conservation measures to protect the bird could be required. This would add time and costs to project development.

The lesser prairie-chicken's range is overwhelmingly served by electric co-ops. Four generation and transmission co-ops—Sunflower Power Corp., Western Farmers Electric Cooperative, Golden Spread Electric Co-op and Tri-State G&T Association—operate in the northern range and serve 19 distribution co-ops. Eight distribution co-ops are in parts of the southern range.

NRECA and electric co-ops have a long history of advocating conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken that is balanced with their mission of providing reliable, affordable electricity. Many co-ops implement measures to protect the bird and other members of the grouse family, including voluntary participation in conservation agreements with commitments recognized by the FWS.

“We encourage co-ops in the lesser prairie-chicken's rangeland to consider enrolling in an existing conservation agreement or creating one for your territory before this rule is finalized," said Janelle Lemen, senior regulatory director at NRECA. “This can provide a pathway to support the bird's habitat, streamline conservation efforts and avoid project delays."

NRECA will be sending comments to the FWS highlighting co-ops' obligation to serve remote and economically challenged communities and their longtime participation in species conservation.

“The service has acknowledged the importance of voluntary conservation efforts and a willingness to work with stakeholders—including electric co-ops—to ensure lesser prairie-chicken conservation while allowing continued economic activities," Lemen said. “This is a complex listing, and Fish and Wildlife is seeking public input to help inform the final decision. We will welcome co-op member input as we bring our concerns about this proposal to the agency."