AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's prairie chicken mating season.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)
CORNISH: It's tough being a lesser prairie chicken, these days. This type of grouse once spanned an enormous area. Now they survive mainly in pockets of Oklahoma and Kansas and their numbers are plummeting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently listed the bird as a threatened species, and that's led to complaints of federal government overreach and to lawsuits.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been threatening to step in and protect the lesser prairie chicken for years, a sour prospect for farmers and ranchers who own almost all the birds' habitat.
NORVAL RALSTIN: They almost think they can take over your property if you're not doing everything you can to make sure this species survives.
MORRIS: Norval Ralstin has thousands of acres with crops, cattle, and wind turbines near Mullinville, Kansas. The wind power and oil companies that operate out here don't want the feds coming in either. So over the last few years, they worked with Fish and Wildlife to come up with a grand plan.
JIM PITMAN: We just call it the range-wide plan.
MORRIS: Jim Pitman, with the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism, says it covers the birds' entire habitat: parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
PITMAN: It's unprecedented. It's really difficult for state agencies to work across those political boundaries.
MORRIS: The plan will pay landowners to make their property more livable for prairie chickens. Companies that degrade habitat will have to compensate landowners to create more of it elsewhere. It could be profitable for farmers and ranchers and it needs to be. U.S. Fish and Wildlife director Daniel Ashe says the birds are desperate for habitat.
DANIEL ASHE: They've lost 84 percent of the short grass prairie, which this bird depends on as its home.
MORRIS: We're walking toward a lek, which is kind of like a singles bar for prairie chickens. They get together and do their thing. Half a dozen, football-shaped males with striped plumage and bulging orange air sacks on their necks, are strutting around this patch of high ground, picking fights and trying to impress the ladies.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)
KEN BRUNSON: He just flew in.
MORRIS: Ken Brunson with the Nature Conservancy says the birds convene at the same spots each year to mate, but otherwise keep their distance.
BRUNSON: This is a large-landscape species. The birds from this lek will probably require up to 20 square miles for their home range to be able to exist.
MORRIS: They only nest on the ground and nowhere near a tree or anything else, like an oil derrick or wind turbine sticking up from the prairie. There were once millions of the birds, and Daniel Ashe says now there may be fewer than 18,000.
ASHE: We've made a threatened determination, which allows us flexibility to acknowledge the work that's been done at the state level.
MORRIS: That range-wide plan we talked about. Ashe says this special listing only improves the regionally-created plan. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is not buying it.
SCOTT PRUITT: For the Fish and Wildlife Service to come out and say, yes, we're going to classify the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, but we're not going to change anything, seems to beg the question, then why did you take the step?
MORRIS: Pruitt plans to sue to stop the listing, but the real action is with the landowners. If they don't agree to take payments to manage their properties in bird-friendly ways, the whole range-wide plan falls apart.
WAYNE KELLER: I'm not a federal government man.
MORRIS: Wayne Keller is scanning the vast expanse of caramel-colored prairie from his ranch south of Dodge City for prairie chickens. The birds' numbers dropped by half in 2012 alone. Keller says it's drought that is killing them.
KELLER: Really, four years of just real brutal conditions. No morning dews, just blast furnace winds.
MORRIS: The prairie grass has died back and the wildlife depending on it is suffering. Lesser prairie chickens only live about a year and a half average, so a couple of years without chicks takes a serious toll.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)
MORRIS: Back at the breeding ground, these blustery males are doing their part. If they can get the hens and the weather to cooperate, each couple could produce up to a dozen chicks and help build the birds' numbers. But with lawsuits, legislation and hard feelings to sort out, repairing its habitat and its long term prospects is going to be a lot more difficult. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.