Trouble on the prairie: Feds call chicken ‘threatened,’ but what about the residents?


THREATENED: While the federal government argues the lesser prairie-chicken is in danger because of drought conditions and encroachment on the animal’s habitat, opponents say it’s private citizens and local government budgets that will truly be threatened because of the new classification.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — The specter of big government regulation has been cast over western Kansas, and opponents are fearing the worst.

Following the announcement Thursday that the lesser prairie-chicken has been reclassified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, farmers, ranchers and advocates are warning the decision will have far-reaching effects for rural residents of the state.

“This is not a good result for agriculture in Kansas,” said Jim Sipes, Farm Bureau director for the southwest corner of the state. “It’s going to lead to a lot of restrictions on land use, and that’s going to lead to a lot of energy development issues.”

For cash-strapped rural counties in western Kansas, Sipes said, local governments rely heavily on the energy industry to provide a stable tax base. With added restrictions enacted by the listing, it will only increase pressure to raise property taxes.

Ken Klemm, a Sherman County rancher and president of the Kansas Natural Resources Coalition, sides with other opponents in arguing that it’s the lack of rainfall, not humanity’s encroachment, that has led to a decline in the lesser prairie-chicken’s population in recent years.

“The heavy hand of the Endangered Species Act will not make it rain,” Klemm told Kansas Watchdog.

Klem said the Range-wide Conservation Plan – a response from the five states covering the chicken’s habitat intended to pre-empt the ruling – could result in more than $2 billion in reduced property valuations. But Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, says folks shouldn’t get worked up just yet.

“It is very premature to try and forecast what will happen with western Kansas,” Kaufman said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist Lesli Gray reiterated to Kansas Watchdog that protections afforded under the “4(d) rule” will protect individuals who inadvertently kill the protected species as long as they’re enrolled in an approved conservation plan, like the RWCP. Gray noted, however, that the agency has yet to determine what it considers a successful recovery of the bird’s population.

“We’ll work with states and industry and other folks to develop that recovery plan,” Gray said.

But to opponents, even more infuriating is the rationale used to justify the decision. Both sides can agree on one thing: Lesser prairie-chicken numbers have been on the rise since 1997, though a recent drought has caused a significant dip. But the feds say that doesn’t go back far enough.

According to the official ruling released Thursday (caution: it’s a slog at 444 pages), USFWS officials are speculating on pre-European settlement population figures as cause for such concern.

“An examination of anecdotal information on historical numbers of lesser prairie-chickens indicates that numbers likely have declined from possibly millions of birds to current estimates of thousands of birds,” the decision stated.

How’s that for certainty?

Klemm said such a rationale is nothing short of ridiculous.

“If that’s what they’re going to use as a yardstick to judge species under the Endangered Species act, watch out,” he stated.

Klemm added that the KNRC will look to join any legal action taken against the federal government because of the decision.

Related: Prairie chicken conservation plan likened to mafia extortion

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