This Western grouse, found in five states, has been a candidate for listing since 1998. The recommendation begins a yearlong process of whether the lesser prairie chicken should receive federal protection.
Fish and Wildlife said it made the recommendation based on evidence that the lesser prairie chicken's population and habitat are in decline.
"Listing cannot come soon enough for the lesser prairie chicken," said Taylor Jones of WildEarth Guardians. "Threats are increasing, the species' range is contracting and current conservation efforts are too little, too late."
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce took the opposite position, sending out a statement headlined, "Here we go again." Pearce, R-Hobbs, successfully led opposition to listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species.
"Unfortunately, our jobs and our way of life in southern New Mexico continue to come under assault," Pearce said. "The prairie chicken is yet another example that federal species regulation is not based on science, but rather driven by lawyers for extreme interest groups, like Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, who filed the lawsuit in this case."
The Environmental Defense Fund, based in New York City, entered the debate suggesting the type of compromise that ended the dunes sagebrush lizard case without a court fight.
"In the past, these kinds of listing decisions have led to years of litigation and conflict," said David Fest , vice president of the land, water and wildlife program for the Environmental Defense Fund. "Now, with the lesser prairie chicken, we're working with land users to set up wildlife habitat exchanges that provide cooperative, cost-effective habitat conservation."
Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said he expected landowners, ranchers, the oil and gas industry and other groups to work with the government on cooperative agreements to save the lesser prairie chicken.
"The writing is on the wall after what happened with the dunes sagebrush lizard," Lininger said in an interview.
An occupant of the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas, the lizard was proposed for federal protection by Fish and Wildlife. But after 18 months of rancorous debate, Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe declined to list the lizard. He said voluntary agreements to save the species were the best solution.
Pearce said he held out hope for cooperation.
"I am confident that the Fish and Wildlife Service has learned through the dunes sagebrush lizard case that New Mexico successfully protects our species through local, state and regional agreements," he said. "I have always supported these conservation efforts, and I will continue to hold the Fish and Wildlife Service accountable to allow a balanced, local approach that protects the species without threatening New Mexico's jobs."
The lesser prairie chicken's name is related to its size. It is about the size of domestic chicken, but resembles a larger grouse of the Southwest, the greater prairie chicken.
Gray-brown in color, the lesser prairie chicken inhabits shinnery oak and sand sagebrush grasslands in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
WildEarth Guardians says the range of lesser prairie chicken has been reduced by more than 90 percent and its population has declined by approximately 85 percent since the 1800s.
Though Lininger said he believed cooperative agreements to protect the bird would emerge, he favors federal action as the surest means to save the species.
"The lesser prairie chicken will disappear forever without protection of the Endangered Species Act," Lininger said. "Voluntary measures that preserve a little habitat are convenient for some, but they won't be effective for the prairie-chicken."