Conservationists: Brownback plan for prairie chickens is for the birds

7/13/2014

By Michael Pearce

By Michael Pearce

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) — Gov. Sam Brownback's announcement Thursday that the state will start raising and releasing lesser prairie chickens was not greeted with a lot of support in the conservation world.

"Pen-reared birds have a long track record of not surviving well in the wild," said Randy Rodgers, a retired biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism who has more than 31 years' experience working with pheasants and lesser prairie chickens in western Kansas.

"There are numerous studies all over the country, with different research techniques, that all come to that same conclusion: It just doesn't work."

Brownback made the announcement at an agribusiness gathering in Dodge City. A news release said he is directing the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the Kansas Department of Agriculture to work together to develop a plan for propagation.

Brownback has repeatedly criticized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing lesser prairie chickens as threatened. He — along with many agriculture and energy experts — says the listing could be disastrous for the western Kansas economy because of restrictions placed on land usage in areas inhabited by lesser prairie chickens.

As well as making some areas off-limits to development or farming, the designation imposes fines for violating some restrictions that could reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Kansas has filed a lawsuit to get federal officials to relax the listing. Several conservation groups have filed countersuits, wanting the birds listed as endangered.

When the listing was made earlier this year, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said it was needed because of several years of population reductions, including about 50 percent between 2012 and 2013. Surveys this spring by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies said the population had increased about 20 percent from last year, to about 22,440 birds.

Lesser prairie chickens inhabit portions of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Kansas has more lessers than the other states combined.

Robin Jennison, Wildlife and Parks secretary, said his department thinks all the birds need is some rain across their Kansas range to recover. He said three to six years of drought across western Kansas has repeatedly robbed the birds of good nesting areas, food and places where they can hide from predators.

Reid Plumb, a Kansas State University graduate research biologist, has studied the birds in Gove County the past two springs. He said there's no doubt rain helps the situation.

"You can't even compare last spring (when it was dry) when we didn't have any broods survive that we were studying, to this spring when we've had the rains," Reid said. "We've had 42 percent nest success so far.

"We got a long ways to go, but things are looking better."

Jennison said it has been at least 50 years since Wildlife and Parks quit raising and releasing quail and pheasant. The program was expensive in terms of the numbers of birds that lived to adulthood and was not needed when habitat conditions were good.

Rodgers, the state biologist, said he spent much of his career trying to educate the public as to why releasing pheasants and quail was not a productive alternative when wild populations were low. He called the concept "ludicrous" because released birds lack the instincts to survive predators and other challenges in the wild.

Brownback's news release acknowledged the project could be challenging for biologists.

"It's an interesting proposal," Jennison said. "I look forward to trying to accomplish it."

Jennison said the concept of raising and releasing lesser prairie chickens was first brought up by energy officials who wondered whether it would be a cheaper alternative than paying high mitigation fees for doing exploration and drilling in lesser prairie chicken habitat.

He added that special permits would be needed to take eggs, chicks or adult prairie chickens from the wild. He wasn't sure whether the permits could come from his agency or the Fish and Wildlife Service.

How much the Kansas program would cost and who would fund it was not mentioned in the news release. Brownback's office did not return calls. Jennison said he hoped the energy industry could help fund the program.

A propagation program in Texas for endangered Attwater prairie chickens, a close relative to lesser prairie chickens, costs about $1,000 per released bird, according to Terry Rossignol, manager of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.

He said Kansas lessers probably wouldn't be as expensive to raise, but added, "it's not going to be cheap."

Rodgers has concerns about declining lesser prairie chicken habitat, even if rains continue. While lesser prairie chicken populations have fluctuated the last decade or so, he said research shows a long-term population decline because of habitat changes.

Mike Hayden, former governor and former Wildlife and Parks secretary, said rain or not, Brownback's propagation plan is probably doomed. He echoed others' remarks about such programs being expensive and seldom successful.

"Releasing captive raised birds into fragmented, overgrazed habitat, subject to heavy pesticide and herbicide use will not be successful," Hayden said in an e-mail.

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