Republicans Battle White House Over Prairie Chickens

President Joe Biden is expected to veto newly passed legislation removing the prairie chicken from the federal endangered species list, setting the stage for another environmental showdown between the Democratic administration and Republicans in Congress.

A slim bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate this week invoked its privilege under the Congressional Review Act to overturn a Biden administration rule protecting the bird, which opponents say has hindered energy and agricultural development throughout the animal’s Midwest habitat.

The decision was the first time Congress voted to invoke the privilege in an effort to circumvent a decision to list a species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), drawing battle lines for a new fight between the executive and legislative branches that could come to define species management.

“This sets a disastrous precedent that could put them and other endangered species at risk of disappearing forever,” the League of Conservation Voters said in a statement after the vote.

A greater prairie chicken in the spring. President Joe Biden is expected to veto newly passed legislation removing the prairie chicken from the federal endangered species list,
Steve Oehlenschlager/Getty

Kansas Republican Senator Roger Marshall, who sponsored the legislation, said the bird’s status posed a “significant burden” for ranchers, farmers and energy producers who live and work in the prairie states that the bird calls home.

According to the most recent data available, about two-thirds of the 27,000 birds live in western Kansas, with the majority of those living on small, protected preserves isolated from the development that eliminated about 95 percent of their natural habitat nationwide.

While Biden’s decision to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act was inspired by its precarious status—once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the prairie chicken has teetered on the brink of extinction since the 1930s—Marshall claimed the ESA was “just another weaponized tool” the president used to “attack rural America,” presenting industry with burdensome regulations that ignored the success of conservation efforts at the state and local level.

“Public and private partnerships have had great success preserving the [Lesser Prairie Chicken’s] habitats and increasing the bird’s population,” Marshall wrote in a statement after the vote. “The federal government must not handcuff these conservation efforts with burdensome government regulations.”

Advocates for the bird say the decision to delist it would likely lead to its extinction, noting that the lesser prairie chicken population has declined 97 percent since the 1960s.

“The science is clear—the Lesser Prairie-Chicken will disappear from our grasslands without these protections,” Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer of the National Audubon Society, wrote in a statement opposing the decision. “We appreciate President Biden’s commitment to veto this resolution. Science—not politics—should dictate how we protect our nation’s threatened and endangered wildlife.”

Wednesday’s vote marks the latest volley between Republicans and the administration over the endangered status of various species. In recent years in the Upper Mountain West, lawmakers have sparred with the federal government over regulations protecting species like the sage grouse and the wolf in states like Wyoming and Montana, which Republicans say hamstrung energy developers as well as ranchers looking to protect their livestock.

Opponents of Republicans’ efforts say they are trying to circumvent needed environmental regulations on behalf of the energy sector.

Last week, members of the Republican-controlled House Committee on Natural Resources voted to advance legislation delisting the prairie chicken as well as the northern long-eared bat, while lending their support to a resolution reinstating a Trump-era rule narrowing the definition of critical habitat under the ESA that Democrats claim would cripple the government’s ability to designate new critical habitats for a species as a result of phenomena like climate change.

Newsweek reached out to the White House via email for comment.

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