Battle lines on Lesser Prairie Chicken clearly drawn

Battle lines on Lesser Prairie Chicken clearly drawn

Lawsuits filed on both sides as environmentalists want strong protection, farmers, energy companies say threatened listing goes too far.

The battle lines over the lesser prairie chicken are clearly drawn; lawsuits have been filed and  threats of more lawsuits are flying.

Environmentalists, including the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians are suing the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because they think listing the birds as "threatened" isn't enough. They want them listed as an endangered species.

The Attorneys General in Oklahoma, North Dakota and Kansas, meanwhile, are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claiming it went too far in classifying the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

The Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Corn Growers Association have a website, www.stopfowlplay.com, which offers information about the possible consequences of an endangered listing to farmers, energy developers and small towns.

The Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Corn Growers Association have teamed up to raise money for the legal fight against an endangered species and are raising money through a public awareness campaign, "Stop Fowl Play."

Meetings throughout the habitat area have been ongoing since late December and the Kansas Farm Bureau provided information at its annual meeting in January as well as at the more recent Kansas Commodity Classic in early February. The groups also have a website, www.stopfowlplay.com, which offers information about the possible consequences of an endangered listing to farmers, energy developers and small towns.

The threatened listing came with some exemptions that mitigate its impact on agriculture, oil and gas exploration and wind energy development. Cropland is exempt from the act and any other business that signs up to participate in an approved U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan for habitat mitigation is also exempt.

Mike Irvin, KFB legal counsel, says that a change to endangered would likely cause the loss of exemptions and restrictions could be so severe that farmers would not be able to apply fertilizer to their land.

In addition, he said the high cost of mitigation under the USFW plan could already be causing some developers to back off.

Most habitat in Kansas
Kansas already knows its stake in the battle is high – almost two-thirds of the "critical habitat" of the lesser prairie chicken is in western Kansas. Smaller amounts of a habitat are in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

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Meanwhile, efforts to encourage voluntary industry cooperation with efforts to conserve habitat are offering hope for bringing a happy ending to everybody.

The University of Kansas, through its research unit, the Kansas Biological Survey, has been awarded a $2.1 million contract to support the effort to track locations and costs of projects affecting habitat as well as conservation project for five years as part of the Fish and Wildlife conservation effort

Mike Houts, research associate with KBS, says that the lesser prairie chicken presence in an area can be considered an indicator of intact shortgreass and shrubland habitats in the southern Great Plains because the birds are sensitive to disturbed habitats.

Houts said the mitigation cost structure is designed encourage in-field development or clustering of projects to minimize new impacts on the birds, particularly their breeding areas, called leks, and their nesting areas.

He said it is possible for an oil or gas company to set several wells in a smaller area rather than spreading them out, or siting them near roads, transmission lines or other existing infrastructure that has already disturbed prairie chicken habitat. When effects do occur, the mitigation fees associated with them are used to pay landowners to create or maintain lesser prairie chicken habitat in areas not affected by development.

The range-wide plan also establishes conservation measures for industry. These include discouraging drilling of new wells during breeding season if chickens are known to be in the area, limiting noise levels on new pumps and generators, putting flags on new fences and burying new electrical distribution lines in prairie chicken areas.

Threatened since May 2014
The lesser prairie chicken was listed as threatened through the Endangered Species Act in May 2014. Once a species is threatened, activity that can harm or harass it or its habitat is in violation of the act.  However, companies that enroll in the voluntary plan can avoid violating the Act by enrolling in the conservation plan and paying for mitigation.

Fees are based on effect and habitat value. They support habitat conservation projects such as tree removal, native grass plantings and livestock grazing plans.

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"The plan is a win-win compromise where industry has an avenue to continue development — as opposed to being in potential violation of the Act — and landowners are paid to improve and manage habitat on their property," Houts said.

Houts said that because the bird's population fluctuates so dramatically, the range-wide plan requires a 10-year average above a certain threshold before it recommends the species be delisted through the Endangered Species Act.

Populations fluctuate in response to environmental conditions. During the recent drought period, there was a great decline, Houts said, with a decrease of about 50 percent from about 35,000 birds in 2012 to about 19,000 in 2013. Rains in the fall 2013 resulted in an increase of about 25 percent, and 2014 rains are expected to produce an even larger increase in 2015. The 10-year recovery goal is 67,000 birds.

Since the species was listed in May as threatened, the range-wide plan has enrolled more than 10 million acres in the plan and collected more than $27 million that is being used to establish a long-term endowment to pay private landowners for habitat conservation. An online map viewer has been created by the Kansas Biological Survey that depicts the range and management zones.

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