Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

LPC Habitat conversion map

Lesser prairie chicken habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

The lesser prairie chicken, one of our nation’s iconic grassland birds known for its unique breeding behavior, is also one of our most at-risk species. A new report released by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop insurance subsidies are threatening to convert even more of the grasslands that these birds need to survive.

To read more about lesser prairie chickens and farm subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Lesser prairie chickens rely on a diversity of grassland habitats, including short- and mid-height grasses and forbs together with shrubs to provide cover. Loss of this diverse habitat is one of the biggest threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s continued survival.  As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 1998 that the species warranted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Unless the situation improves for the prairie chicken, it may become federally protected by next fall as part of the Service’s six-year plan to issue final listing decisions for over 250 candidate species.

Based on our report, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses,” more than 1.5 million acres of habitat have been converted to cropland in counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found between 2008 and 2011. This is despite investments by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In FY11, NRCS spent $11 million on improving land management and increasing and enhancing lesser prairie chicken habitat on 458,000 acres. However successful these activities are, even these investments won’t be enough to stem the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat given the current rate of conversion.

Although the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is currently up in the air, one thing is certain: increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring basic environmental protections creates incentives for farmers to plow up more grassland and wetlands. The Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment to its Farm Bill that attaches basic environmental requirements to crop insurance subsidies. To protect the lesser prairie chicken and our nation’s other iconic wildlife, conservation compliance must be included in any Farm Bill Congress passes in 2012.

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- who has written 10 posts on dotWild.

Allison Sribarra is the Conservation Policy Coordinator at Defenders of Wildlife. Alli works on a variety of issues for Defenders' conservation policy program including federal lands policy and conservation planning.

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