KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Conservationists are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect lesser prairie chickens under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the lawsuit, conservationists have petitioned to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened for over 25 years, citing agricultural development as the primary culprit of habitat loss.

Leks are exposed areas of elevated prairie where the birds gather to mate.

“Conversion to agriculture, the introduction of cattle, and the construction of roads, pipelines, powerlines, and drilling pads to support the oil and gas industry have fragmented bird’s preferred habitat, separated individuals from lek sites, and driven sharp reduction in number,” the lawsuit cites.

Lesser prairie chicken populations are found throughout Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. Once in the millions, their numbers have substantially declined, with fewer than 38,000 birds remaining on the planet, according to the suit.

The lawsuit states that the service has repeatedly confirmed that protection is warranted for lesser prairie chickens, but “higher priority species” have been placed ahead of the lesser prairie chicken for decades. 

“It’s a problem that goes beyond the lesser prairie chicken and is impacting a lot of other declining animal and plant species, as well,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations suing the service. “It’s a crisis for the natural world.”

“Species that deserve to be on the endangered species list are, you know, getting a ‘come back later’ note.”

FOX4 contacted the service, which said its policy does not allow them to comment on pending litigation.

“The Service is continuing its work on this listing decision,” Aislinn Maestas, public affairs specialist for the Service, said.

But Robinson said the longer the service procrastinates listing the lesser prairie chicken as endangered, the closer they get to extinction. He says outside interests have influenced the service.

“This is happening with a lot of other endangered species, where there’s powerful, economic and connected industries that say, ‘You don’t have to follow the law, just delay a little bit,’ – maybe they don’t say it like that, but that’s the message they’re sending,” he said.

“Fish and Wildlife Service, in many respects, it’s been captured by special interest and it is serving the American public a lot less because it’s not following the law and making timely determinations of whether species are in need of Endangered Species Act protections, and delay, as I said, it’s led to extinction for other species that never got on the list because Fish and Wildlife Services couldn’t get around to it.”

Jackie Augustine, executive director of the Audubon of Kansas, said agriculturists need to realize the presence of lesser prairie chickens indicates a healthy grassland ecosystem.

“There’s economic goals and really, the presence of prairie chickens is an indicator of a healthy rangeland and so if you want to have healthy cows, you usually don’t graze your grass to the ground, that you have a mixture of grasses and forbes so that the cows have a diversity to eat,” Augustine said. “A good, healthy ecosystem for prairie chickens is also a good, healthy ecosystem for raising cattle.”

Augustine said if we lose the lesser prairie chicken, we lose a connection to nature and history.

“In Native American cultures, there’s a dance they do called the ‘Prairie Chicken Dance,’ and it mimics a lot of the behaviors that the birds actually do, with foot stomping and leaning over and they usually wear these costumes with lots of different feathers that are puffed out, so just like the birds,” she said. “If we lose this bird, we’re going to lose that connection to nature in the future.”

The Kansas Lek Treks website also has more information on Kansas’s lesser prairie chicken festival and where you can go to see the birds. The Audubon website has information on lesser prairie chickens and their impact in Kansas.