By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY — Save the lesser prairie chicken!
That’s what farmers, ranchers, conservationists and many power companies in Kansas want to do.
They worry that if they don’t, the federal government will.
And no one will fare as well if that happens, they say.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are scheduled this month to decide whether to include the small prairie chickens on the nation’s list of threatened or endangered species.
Farmers, ranchers and conservation officials dislike that idea and contend the game birds will fare better if the free market rules. The birds thrive on the same open ranges that cattle do and “generally what’s good for lesser prairie chickens is good for ranchers too,” said Mike Beam, a senior vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association in Topeka.
Those benefits flow both ways, said Jon Ungerer, Manhattan coordinator of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative. That is a federal Agriculture Department Natural Resources Conservation Service program that since 2010 has given western Kansas agricultural producers more than $18 million in financial, technical and other help to provide habitat for the birds on private property.
“Without profitable farms and ranches, we will not have good habitat for the chickens either,” Ungerer said.
But allowing farmers, ranchers and other business interests to set conservation policy can be a flawed approach too, said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas in Manhattan.
“My fear is that if Fish and Wildlife Services declares the lesser prairie chicken doesn’t need classification (as a threatened or endangered species,) there won’t be much follow through,” Klataske said. “We’ve seen local plans before that have been sitting on shelves for the last 10 years.”
Lesser prairie chickens are small grouse about half the size of the birds used to fill KFC buckets. They once roamed much of the Midwest, but their habitat has shrunk to 100 million acres in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado since pioneers moved onto the plains.
Their numbers have been dwindling too, though not in Kansas where more than half the nation’s estimated 36,200-bird flock is believed to be nesting. If that estimate is accurate, Kansas’ prairie chickens outnumber full-time farmers in western Kansas nearly 2-to-1, according to the past U.S. Agricultural Census.
The small birds present a big challenge to power companies and wind-farm developers, which wind-farm proponent Gov. Sam Brownback recently estimated are investing more than $3 billion in the state this year.
The birds don’t like tall structures nearby because predators could perch there. Most won’t go any nearer than a mile to a wind turbine or four football fields to a power line, according to a study by the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism.
“We can change where we put power lines to accommodate them, and we have,” said Brad Loveless, biology and conservation programs director at Westar Energy Inc., the state’s largest utility.
It is difficult to gauge the costs of other changes that would be required if the birds were declared to be threatened or endangered, “but the costs of mitigation would be major,” Loveless said.
Kansas’ ag producers are using resources like the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative and the agriculture department’s Conservation Reserve Program, in which the federal government rents farm or ranchland to take it out of production and encourage soil and water conservation, to build better habitats for the birds.
“That’s always going to be a more certain course and probably more successful than declaring an endangered species,” said Beam, the Kansas Livestock Association executive.
Even so, the Fish and Wildlife Service is going ahead with its plans to determine whether Kansas’ prairie chickens are an endangered or threatened species, said Lesli Gray, a public affairs specialist with the service’s Texas office.
The U.S. Interior Department is bound by the terms of a legal settlement reached last year with environmental groups to tackle that decision Nov. 29, Gray said. The groups, led by WildEarth Guardians, sued the department to unjam a backlog of nearly 1,400 applications to protect allegedly endangered plants and animals.
Department officials will have two broad choices then, Gray said. One would be to remove the prairie chickens from the department’s list of potentially endangered species if the population is improving. The other would be to ramp up the birds’ protected status by declaring them either threatened or endangered. Even then, department officials would require at least a year of study and public hearings before any changes occur.
Neither Gray nor the agriculture and conservation specialists hoping against the federal declaration could estimate what the cost of that decision would be to farmers, ranchers or other residents where the birds roam.
“We don’t consider economic impact,” Gray said. “We base our decision on the best science available.”
Contact Gene Meyer at [email protected]