WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed on a 50-48 vote a resolution overturning a Biden administration rule that listed a popular Southwestern game bird under a federal endangered species designation.
The White House has vowed President Joe Biden would veto the resolution if it clears Congress. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Republican-controlled House.
The point of contention between the rule protecting the bird, known for its complex mating dance, and Republican opponents boils down to land.
Lesser prairie-chickens thrive in native grasses, and conservation groups’ efforts to preserve habitat for the birds have undergone pushback from Republican lawmakers who argue the Biden policy is a threat to farmers, ranchers and energy producers.
The Congressional Review Act resolution, brought by Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, overturned a rule by the Fish and Wildlife Service to list two Distinct Population Segments, or DPS, of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act.
Congress can use a CRA to block rules recently promulgated by federal agencies, and in specific other circumstances, by submitting a joint resolution of disapproval.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III was the sole Democrat to vote with Republicans to repeal the rule.
Kansans mount opposition
On the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said the rule threatens ranchers and farmers.
“I am confident there are ways to conserve the species without hindering economic opportunity in rural communities,” he said.
He said what Kansas needs is “more rainfall not more regulations.”
“Farmers and ranchers have always been and will always be the original conservationists,” Moran said. “Their livelihood depends upon the continued conservation efforts of the soil and the water they use to produce crops and raise livestock.”
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Tom Carper defended the bird and the rule.
“Native to the southern Great Plains, the lesser prairie-chicken has long been considered an indicator for healthy grasslands and prairies upon which hundreds of species depend,” Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said on the floor. “So, if the lesser prairie-chicken is in peril — in time, other species could be in peril as well.”
The Southern DPS of the lesser prairie-chicken is being listed as “endangered” and the Northern DPS of the lesser prairie-chicken is being listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
The bird can be found in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The rule has been a long-standing point of contention in Kansas.
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach in April announced plans to sue the Biden administration over the designation for the lesser prairie-chicken, arguing that federal protections for the bird are illegal, and it could be devastating to landowners and businesses in the state.
The White House defended its policy in its announcement of a veto if the resolution is passed by Congress.
“The lesser prairie-chicken serves as an indicator for healthy grasslands and prairies, making them an important measure of the overall health of America’s grasslands, a treasured and storied landscape,” the White House said.
“Overturning common-sense protections for the lesser prairie-chicken would undermine America’s proud wildlife conservation traditions, risk the extinction of a once-abundant American bird, and create uncertainty for landowners and industries who have been working for years to forge the durable, locally led conservation strategies that this rule supports,” the White House continued.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor that the designation of the bird’s status under the Endangered Species Act “is holding American farms, ranches, and other small businesses hostage to an animal called the lesser prairie-chicken.”
He argued that local landowners and officials already set aside millions of acres of potential habitat for the bird.
“But the Biden administration wants to plow ahead anyway, throw the book at these Americans, and threaten nearly $14 billion in agricultural production,” McConnell said.
A handful of Senate Republicans co-sponsored the bill including Sens. Moran, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Katie Boyd Britt of Alabama, and James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma.
Mike Leahy, the senior director of wildlife policy for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement that the population of the lesser prairie-chicken has continued to dwindle for decades.
The bird at one time numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but its population is now estimated to be about 30,000, according to FWS. The habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken has diminished by about 90%, according to FWS.
Leahy said the rule “leaves landowners a good deal of flexibility.”
“If we want to recover the lesser prairie-chicken, we need to restore its habitat,” he said. “A Congressional Review Act vote is not the right approach because it would not only overturn this particular listing, it would mean this bird could never be listed again no matter how bad things get.”