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Prairie chicken killing jobs in western Kansas

By   /   June 18, 2014  /   No Comments

Photo by Travis Perry

SHUTTING DOWN: An oil pumping rig stands watch over a dry, stout wheat field in Logan County. Recent rulings and restrictions by the federal government are clamping down on the oil and gas industry in western Kansas, costing jobs and causing some companies to pack up their operations entirely.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

HOXIE, Kan. — These days, when Kyle Randa scouts a new location for an oil well, his schedule is a little different.

He’s up early to drive out to the spot. But rather than get right to work, for a few hours he sits, waits and listens.

And hopes he doesn’t hear the booming call of the now-infamous lesser prairie chicken.

Like countless others in Western Kansas, Randa’s job has been upended by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service move to list the small grouse as a threatened species. With the March decision came new rules, regulations and the threat of fines for disturbing the bird.

While folks in the oil and gas industry are now restricted where they can work — it costs as much as $45,000 in fines to tear up a single acre of lesser prairie chicken habitat — it goes beyond that. Randa, who works for Mull Drilling of Ness City, used to start his days by 6 a.m. or earlier, but now he and other oil patch workers are barred from going anywhere near a rig before 9 a.m.

What happens if, say, there’s a fire? Randa just shrugs, and said it’s not worth inviting fines. They’ll just wait it out.

Under the scorching summer sun, restricted hours mean hotter, longer days with fewer jobs to go around.

“It’s going to change our lifestyle, how we operate,” Randa told Kansas Watchdog. “They’re trying to set the hours you can work, they’re going to restrict where you can and where you can’t work. We don’t work from 9-5.”

While the initial impact of the USFWS ruling is being felt by the energy industry, a ripple effect is inevitable. Oil and gas are huge economic factors in communities across western Kansas. They provide not only reliable employment, but make up a substantial chunk of the tax base. Ed Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, said in July 2013 the industry employs as many as 67,000 Kansans.

Until May 12, at least some of those jobs were spread across about 15 oil wells near Oakley, right in the heart of lesser prairie chicken habitat.

“We stopped because we don’t want to be their (USFWS) poster boy,” said Mark Hammerschmidt, a driller with Pelican Hill Oil and Gas.

“We’ve got guys on drilling units that don’t have jobs now, because there’s so many that have backed off,” he said. “Each well, you’re affecting maybe 100 people by the time you get all the service, all the guys on the rig. There’s a whole lot more to it than just drilling a hole and putting a pumping unit on it. There’s a lot of service industries that are affected by this.”

But even more unsettling than the threat of fines — which can range upwards of $25,000 for just disturbing a lesser prairie chicken, Randa said — is the uncertainty. Folks aren’t sure exactly how things will be enforced, and just how closely the federal government will follow the letter of the law.

But if you ask Jim Carlson, the whole decision is wrong from the start.

Carlson heads the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition, a group of 31 Kansas counties that have banded together to fight the perceived power grab by the federal government.

“The science doesn’t support the listing,” Carlson told a crowd of worried individuals during a KNRC meeting in Hoxie on Thursday.

While the official USFWS report detailing the lesser prairie chicken listing is a staggering 600 pages long, at the very core is one simple number: 18,000. That’s how many birds government officials say they counted in Kansas last year, cut nearly in half from the 34,000 birds counted in 2012.

Here’s the dirty little secret officials don’t want you to know: in reality, they have no way of knowing just how many lesser prairie chickens reside in Kansas, and the methodology they use to count the birds is shaky at best.

According to surveys conducted by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, the birds are counted by listening for their calls within a given area, under a few assumptions:

  • Only males are counted
  • All males attend leks (mating grounds)
  • There are as many females as males
  • All leks within the survey area are detected

KDWPT’s surveys even admit “it is likely that some of these assumptions are being violated and as a result the density estimates are probably biased (most likely low).”

You know what happens when you assume, right?

Randa readily admits he’s not a scientist, be he likes to think he has a feel for the wildlife around him.

“I’ve lived basically my whole life in Ness County, and we have more prairie chicken today than I have ever seen before,” Randa quipped. “We haven’t seen a decline in the numbers, we’ve seen the opposite.”

Photo by Travis Perry

PARCHED: Wheat harvest is just around the corner, but fields that should be chest high barely come up to your knees. While locals and state officials continue to assert the drought has caused the dip in lesser prairie chicken numbers, federal officials believe oil and gas industry activity are largely to blame.

Driving through western Kansas, it’s painfully clear how a multi-year drought has gripped the region. Wheat harvest is only days away, but stalks of grain that should be chest high barely reach the knees.

Sheila Ellis, rancher and KNRC research analyst, said the lesser prairie chicken saw population declines during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but with the return of moisture came an increase in the bird’s numbers.

“The heavy hand of the Endangered Species Act will not make it rain,” KNRC President Ken Klemm told Kansas Watchdog in a previous interview.

At this point, the fate of the lesser prairie chicken is tied to the livelihood and economics of western Kansas, and will ultimately be decided in court. Until then, Randa is just doing his job, which he feels has come under the watchful eye of big brother. In recent months, plain white SUVs bearing government plates have dotted a distant roadside near his job sites; small planes have passed and circled overhead.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of government vehicles. I think they’re observing, somewhat,” Randa said. “I guess we can only say what we’re seeing, but it definitely feels like we’re being observed, and I’ve never had that feeling before.”

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

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Travis Perry is an investigative reporter covering news and politics for Watchdog.org's Kansas bureau. Before joining the organization, Travis graduated cum laude from Washburn University and cut his teeth as news editor for the Osawatomie Graphic, where he received numerous awards from the Kansas Press Association.