Prairie chicken listing causes concern




Special to The Telegram

It's not as dry as the Mojave, yet Nikki Schwerdfeger tells it like it is: without rain in the next five to 10 days, she could be faced with another year of burned wheat and little pasture grasses on the Kansas High Plains.

Drought, however, is bringing more trouble across the southwest Kansas landscape than just parching crops, she says. She hasn't seen lesser prairie chickens like in the past. Even more troubling, she says, is what it could mean for her longtime family farming operation in Hamilton County.

Last month, the federal government took action on the declining, finicky species, which doesn't like man-made progress. The lesser prairie chicken's habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 19th century. The former wide-open, native prairie where this species once prospered is now fragmented with a mixture of agriculture operations, communities, roads, fences and power lines. Meanwhile, the introduction of wind turbines and oil wells further reduced bird's grassland habitat.

With numbers falling to fewer than 18,000 birds in 2013 — a 50 percent drop from the previous year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials last month said they could no longer overlook the bird's dramatic drop and declared the lesser prairie chicken threatened.

Schwerdfeger, a Hamilton County commissioner, and others don't want to see the birds die out, but there are mounting concerns about the ruling. The listing has prompted angst from farmers and ranchers, along with defiance from lawmakers in the chicken's five-state habitat area. They cite potential for stringent land restrictions, exorbitant costs of doing business and a deterrent of economic growth.

Hearsay is circulating on what the listing will mean for western Kansas. And already, Schwerdfeger noted, a proposed Hamilton County wind farm is now on the back burner.

But all the conservation measures of the world won't bring storm clouds, Schwerdfeger said matter-of-factly — what she calls the biggest factor in species' demise.

"I'm very guarded what the outsiders want me to do to change my practices that have been there since 1976 when I think it is a lot bigger picture," she said. "We don't want to kill anything. I like the prairie chicken. I like my pheasants. I like the prairie. But I really think the major problem is the drought."

Political rally

Schwerdfeger is not alone in her thoughts. Her county is part of 32 western Kansas counties known as the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition, which opposes reclassification of the lesser prairie-chicken.

Gov. Sam Brownback also has weighed in, calling the threatened listing as "an overreach on the part of the federal government."

"I am concerned about the effect this designation will have on Kansans and the Kansas economy," he said in a statement.

Threatened is a step before endangered, said Lesli Gray, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An endangered species is one in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Threatened species are ones likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. It also allows for more flexible protection measures under the listing.

Yet, the action already is setting off a state rights battle. Earlier this month, Kansas joined Oklahoma in a lawsuit challenging the process used by the federal government to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

Meanwhile, legislation against the listing also has surfaced in Topeka, which includes one bill declaring that the federal government has no authority to regulate prairie chickens or their habitats in Kansas. Another that passed through the Senate would make it a felony for federal employees to attempt to enforce any law or regulation dealing with the lesser or greater prairie chicken.

The concern is just how it will affect rural residents across the western third of the state, as well as the limited tax base. Stanton County farmer Jim Sipes, who has researched the issue for several years as a member of Kansas Farm Bureau, said he fears companies might put projects, such as wind farms, on hold indefinitely.

"We really are concerned about how the listing will affect the availability on energy development in the 36 different counties affected that rely very heavily on energy development to provide a tax base," he said, noting one project that was canceled before the ruling.

"They walked away just shortly after they learned that the area was prime habitat" for lesser prairie chickens, Sipes said. "I do believe other wind projects could be cancelled because of the listing, but this one was cancelled because it was prime habitat and the energy company was concerned about what they could cost their company in mitigation or litigation."

Voluntary to regulatory

Lesser prairie chickens have been on governmental radar since the late 1990s. State wildlife agencies and businesses were hoping to keep the bird off the Endangered or Threatened Species List.

"It was disappointing," Jim Pitman, small game coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said of the announcement, adding he hoped a voluntary, five-state range-wide plan endorsed by the federal wildlife service would have been given time to help rebuild the bird's numbers.

KDWPT is part of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies that initiated the range-wide conservation plan to encourage landowners and others to do voluntary conservation efforts. Pitman, along with five other wildlife officials in the bird's habitat region, wrote the plan, which has a goal to increase populations to nearly 70,000 bird. That's a realistic figure, Pitman said, adding that was the population in 2006.

The Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association and other oil and gas groups had worked hard on the prairie chicken issue before the listing, said Edward Cross, KIOGA president. He noted that, according to the state wildlife-led association, 32 companies — mostly oil and gas — had enrolled more than 3.5 million acres with a payout of more than $21 million in that conservation plan, before the ruling was even announced.

"The USFWS decision ignores state-led voluntary conservation efforts in favor of overbearing federal intervention," Cross said.

Despite going from voluntary to regulatory measures, the five-state range-wide plan is still an approved option under the federal ruling, Pitman said.

Bruce Graham, president of the Kansas Electric Cooperative, said he is concerned about the potential costs for his cooperative members, noting it could mean increases in consumers' utility bills.

"We are doing our best ... to conserve on a voluntary basis, now it will be a necessarily cost of business," he said, later adding Washington didn't take into account the multiyear drought's impact on the prairie chicken.

"People want to protect wildlife, and we do too," Graham said. "We just want to inject some common sense into these decisions."

Pitman said the potential for increased consumer costs was a concern.

"That is why we tried to provide the industry as low of fees" as possible, he said of the five-state plan.

He added that only displaced habitat will mean fees — not cropland or already developed areas. Mitigation costs will depend on the quality of habitat taken. About 7 of the 40 million acres of prairie chicken habitat is considered high priority. And half of the total habitat is already impacted by agricutlure or new develop.

Prairie "Scapegoat"

As lawsuits fly and lawmakers try to stop actions with legislation, Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, notes one thing is forgotten — the prairie chicken.

There never was a fight when listing the bald eagle as endangered, he said. Instead of fighting, the state should concentrate on rebuilding lesser prairie chicken's numbers, which he fears, will drop to 10,000 birds by next year. He blamed emergency haying and grazing of of Conservation Reserve Program acres, which was allowed because of the drought.

"I think elected officials are using this for political grandstanding," he said. "Their key phrase they are using is federal overreach ... a new calling card for some members.

"I think lesser prairie chickens on this decision are just a casualty of political maneuvering for other purposes, and prairie chickens are a convenient. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' decision makes them a convenient scapegoat and whipping boy."

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