Conservationists demand big(ger) government to save prairie chicken

PLAYING CHICKEN: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found itself trapped between two opposing lawsuits surrounding their reclassification of the lesser prairie-chicken.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in a no-win scenario, it seems.

Just a few weeks ago, Kansas announced it had leaped into the fray alongside Oklahoma and North Dakota to challenge the federal government’s decision to list the lesser prairie-chicken as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Thursday, a trio of national conservation groups threatened to do the same, only in reverse. While the states are fighting to ease the grip of the federal government, the Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians assert the feds haven’t gone far enough, and are advocating for full endangered status for the small, prairie grouse.

What’s the funniest part about this whole mashup?

Both sides say the USFWS science is bunk. They just don’t agree on exactly how it is wrong.

Kansas argues the bird’s recent population decline, dropping from 34,000 to less than 18,000 over the last two years, is largely because of persistent drought conditions in the western half of the state.

“The heavy hand of the Endangered Species Act will not make it rain,” Ken Klemm, president of the Kansas Natural Resources Coalition, previously told Kansas Watchdog.

The aforementioned trio of conservationist groups says the feds have ignored the best available science in making a decision they describe as “arbitrary and capricious.”

While state litigation is already on the move, the conservationists have issued an ultimatum to relist the bird within 60 days or face a challenge in court.

Under the current ruling, Kansas and other states encompassing the lesser prairie-chicken’s range have been granted a modicum of flexibility: As long as an individual or an organization is participating in the region’s Range Wide Conservation Plan, they won’t have to worry if any harm comes to the threatened prairie-chicken during the course of normal activities.

According to opponents of the USFWS decision, this might as well be government-sanctioned killing of a species on the edge of extinction.

“The special exemptions for the lesser prairie-chicken allow participants in a state organized conservation plan, or other voluntary plans, to kill lesser prairie-chickens and destroy their habitat,” the group stated in a news release Thursday.

Of course! After all, who could forget the number of birds bagged during the plow-hunting season of ’95, or the pile of prairie-chickens brought in during the wind turbine season of ’03? To hear the conservationist opposition talk, you’d think folks are out en masse hunting lesser prairie-chicken from behind the wheel of a tractor or an SUV.

An “endangered” reclassification would rescind any special protections afforded to individuals should they unintentionally kill the protected bird.

In the end, though, this new litigation boils down to one thing: these groups think ordinary folks can’t be trusted.

“The unenforceable state-level plan and voluntary measures are too little, too late, and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction,” said Jay Lininger, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The lesser prairie-chicken needs the full protection of the Endangered Species Act to stem the tide of habitat destruction.”

Yes, that’s right, these folks say the ESA — with its 2 percent success rate — will be the savior of this small, grassland bird.

Ultimately, it may be up to the courts to make that decision.

Related: Meet three species still struggling despite the Endangered Species Act
Related: Trouble on the prairie: Feds call chicken ‘threatened,’ but what about the residents?
Related: Chicken conservation plan likened to mafia extortion

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!

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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