WASHINGTON — The federal government on Thursday designated the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, a long-anticipated announcement that politicians warned could set off a possible battle over states’ rights.
The lesser prairie chicken is a species of grouse with feathered feet and striped plumage. It lives in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado.
The bird’s habitat has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 19th century, as the once-open prairie has transformed into a mosaic of farms, ranches and towns, crisscrossed by roads, fences and power lines. The introduction of wind turbines and oil and gas wells further reduced the native grasslands preferred by lesser prairie chickens, which once were plentiful on the Great Plains.
The bird’s population hit a record low of 17,616 birds last year, a reduction of 50 percent from 2012.
“We can’t ignore the mounting evidence that the prairie ecosystem that supports the lesser prairie chicken and so many other species is in trouble,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told reporters Thursday in Washington.
Threatened status means federal officials think the bird will likely be in danger of extinction soon. The designation is one step beneath endangered and provides for more flexible protections under the Endangered Species Act, Ashe said.
Ranchers, oil producers nervous
The move prompted anxiety among landowners and threats of defiance from politicians in the bird’s five-state habitat. They worry the listing could wreak havoc on their economies by limiting land use and raising regulatory costs.
Stacy Hoeme, a rancher in Gove County, Kan., said he is concerned about what potential federal hoops he may have to jump through with the threatened status of the prairie chicken.
“It makes me nervous,” he said. “I want to see them protected but without going overboard.”
Kansas State University is using Hoeme’s ranch to study the prairie chickens and he is voluntarily trying to preserve wildlife habitat.
“We are trying to preserve as much grass as we can, but at the same time, we make a profit by running cattle across the grass. … If you preserve the grass, you are going to preserve the wildlife. And in the process, we hope to also make a profit.”
In Texas, independent oil producers said the designation would undoubtedly affect oil and gas production. And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “Today’s decision, which has real-world consequences for Texas families, landowners and businesses, is a missed opportunity to acknowledge Texans’ unprecedented conservation efforts.”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was blunt about his dismay. “This is an overreach on the part of the federal government,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Brownback had voiced his opposition to listing the chicken as a threatened species in a letter sent to Ashe in January.
In the letter, Brownback said the listing wasn’t justified and “would jeopardize Kansas’ largest industries – agriculture and energy.”
The governor blamed the recent decline in the chickens’ numbers on three years of drought in Kansas and in the other four states that are home to the bird.
“The interests of conservation and protection of the species can be furthered without the heavy-handed measures that could accompany a federal listing,” he wrote.
Brownback added that Kansas stands ready to challenge the listing in court.
A bill pending in the Kansas Legislature would prevent the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in the state by declaring any federal law related to the bird null and void. The bill, which passed the state Senate 30-10 on Feb. 12, makes it a felony for any federal employee to enforce the bird’s threatened status.
“This issue is not just about one type of bird, it’s about states’ rights,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said in an interview Thursday.
Kobach, who drafted the bill, said litigation over the bird’s status likely would cost the state $100,000 to $400,000, but “this is a fight that is necessary for Kansas to carry out.”
Kobach questioned the science behind the federal government’s decision
and said the lesser prairie chicken’s population will bounce back once the drought lets up, a sentiment echoed by Ken Klemm, a Sherman County rancher.
“As a rancher, someone who is living off the land, we are suffering through the drought, just like the lesser prairie chickens,” Klemm said. “It’s already gotten very tough to make a living out here with the drought, and now it will be harder. You know, once the rains return the prairie chickens will return, just like our herds of cattle will return.
“The Endangered Species Act cannot make it rain, and that’s what we need for the lesser prairie chickens and our ranches.”
He’s also worried about the 500 pages of regulations that accompany the listing.
“And now I have to figure out how to incorporate all of that into my operation and future planning? And I’m not getting paid for the time it will take. I’m just trying to stay in business and not get in violation and get a $10,000 fine or five years in prison, for harming a threatened species or its habitat.”
In Washington, conservative members of Congress were quick to voice their condemnation of the Obama administration’s announcement of the listing.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., pledged to “fight to undo this foolish and overly prescriptive rule.”
Roberts said he is disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored voluntary attempts to conserve the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat.
Cornyn criticized the administration for making its decision “based on arbitrary deadlines set in a closed-door meeting, ignoring the ongoing efforts by Texas landowners and businesses.”
Cornyn, Roberts and other senators from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas sent a letter to Ashe last month, requesting a 60-day extension of Fish and Wildlife’s final decision on the bird. Other lawmakers who signed the letter included Ted Cruz, R-Texas; James Inhofe, R-Okla.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
Ashe granted the extension, but the extra time didn’t change his agency’s determination to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.
The agency had been working for years with officials and landowners in the five affected states to encourage voluntary conservation efforts for the bird.
In a gesture that agency officials described as unprecedented, the bird’s threatened status will coincide with implementation of a special rule that will enable all five states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the lesser prairie chicken and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development, utility line maintenance and “normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land.”
“I don’t anticipate the need for a lot of federal action or any federal action if the range-wide plan is implemented,” Ashe said Thursday. “States will be in the driver seat for management. … There’s also a long history of state legislation to try to prohibit fed officials from conducting federal activities at the state or local level, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Environmentalists on Thursday welcomed Ashe’s announcement.
Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said he’s saddened that the lesser prairie chicken’s situation has deteriorated to the point where listing became necessary, but he’s hopeful that the federal government’s action on Thursday can help save the bird.
“We really have an opportunity for everyone to refocus their energies to recover this species so that it won’t have to be listed as threatened for very long,” Klataske said. “Because if we do the right thing the population should recover and then they won’t have to be listed anymore.”
Contributing: Beccy Tanner and Michael Pearce of The Eagle