The only thing “lesser” about the lesser prairie chicken is its name. Indeed, this pheasant-sized bundle of (usually) non-descript feathers is the latest candidate species to find itself considered for a possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

And that, regardless of species, is a big deal.

In the past, such a move was typically accompanied by much wailing and thrashing of arms due to the implications for landowners lucky enough to provide habitat for a threatened or endangered species. While those implications still exist and are still very real, landowners and conservation agencies alike have learned that cooperation, rather than conflict, is the best method to ensure that everyone wins in what otherwise would be a losing proposition for all involved, including the species at the center of the fight.

That’s the approach landowners and agencies have taken in the past with such species as the black-tailed prairie dog, the sage grouse and the dunes sagebrush lizard. And it’s worked. Cooperation between landowners and conservation agencies has proven to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal agency responsible for carrying out the ESA, that sufficient habitat is being managed for the benefit of the candidate species to preclude the need for a listing.

First, some background

The lesser prairie chicken was first considered as a candidate for listing as threatened or endangered in 1998. Since then, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and state wildlife agencies in the five states that harbor lesser prairie chicken populations – Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado – have been working with landowners to enhance the bird’s habitat.

Once so populous that homesteaders recall they blackened the sky, it’s estimated that the bird now occupies less than 8% of its historic range – and more than 90% of those 100-million-plus acres are privately owned.

Kansas, home to roughly half of the total lesser prairie chicken population, is the only state where populations are stable or increasing. Populations in the other states are trending downward and biologists aren’t certain why, although it’s likely a combination of habitat fragmentation, drought and parasites.

Prodded by lawsuits from activist environmental groups, USFWS late last year initiated the process to determine if the bird should be listed as threatened under the ESA.