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Wildlife, conservation bills stir strong feelings in Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 30, 2014, at 9:50 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 30, 2014, at 7:38 p.m.

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Some in the Kansas Legislature are “waging a war on wildlife and landscape conservation in Kansas,” Ron Klataske contends.

Klataske, Audubon of Kansas director, cited a bill to revoke the Kansas Endangered Species Act and another bill to prevent landowners from locking their property in conservation programs in perpetuity. Other bills also have sparked the ire of state wildlife and conservation groups. Some warn that passage could have harmful effects on the Kansas countryside and wildlife and could lead to lawsuits that would be costly to taxpayers.

But some helping to move the bills through the system, such as Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, said the bills are founded on solid reason. Endangered species, for instance, should be managed by the Legislature rather than the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, he said.

“It can be a philosophical decision – should these things be in the hands of people elected by the state or by a bureaucratic organization (Wildlife and Parks) that is appointed?” he said. Allowing landowners to lock their properties in conservation projects forever, he said, could stifle the rights of future landowners.

Endangering species act

Threatened and endangered species have been a controversial topic since the legislative session began in January. Senate Bill 276, which is awaiting House action, would deny the federal government authority over the lesser prairie chicken, which on Thursday was placed on the national threatened species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sparking fears that it would restrict the way ranchers could use their land. The bill also says that federal employees trying to enforce federal regulations pertaining to the birds could face felony charges in Kansas.

Another bill, House Bill 2118, which is awaiting Senate action, would end the Kansas Endangered Species Act. It is an expansion of an original bill to remove redbelly and smooth earth snakes from state listings. Historically, such action was done only by Wildlife and Parks biologists pending scientific research. Protection for both snakes has stalled or stopped some development projects in Johnson County. Smith said there’s no shortage of frustration within his district in Overland Park.

“The thing is, nobody has seen one of these snakes. If they’re still endangered, you’d think we’d at least see one somewhere,” he said. “I would rather have less government.”

Last week, Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, expanded the bill from removing two species to removing all of the nearly 70 currently listed as threatened or endangered in Kansas. Powell, Senate Natural Resources Committee chairman, did not return repeated calls. Smith helped move the bills through the committee but said they need more debate before he decides whether he will support them on the Senate floor.

Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, the committee vice chairman, opposed the moves.

“The issue started with two snakes, and now people will be getting the message we don’t care about endangered species,” Kerschen said. “I understand people are tired of negotiating (about redbelly and smooth earth snakes), and there’s a problem that should be resolved, but this is too far.”

Robin Jennison, Wildlife and Parks secretary, said science should be involved in all decisions pertaining to the wildlife. He favors the long-standing system in which the department investigates potential development in areas that may contain habitat for sensitive species. Should the agency rule that a threatened or endangered species could be affected by development, an alternative site must be found. Or the developer, including the state highway department, can enter into mitigation and pay to have habitat for the species developed in another area.

Jennison said 46 states currently have endangered species provisions. Many conservation groups agree that science is needed.

“If this bill goes through,” Klataske said, “Wildlife and Parks doesn’t even get to look at the projects, and their comments wouldn’t have any relevance anyway. If someone wanted to develop an area, they could just ignore any endangered species and develop it.”

Chris Tymeson, Wildlife and Parks attorney, said ending the Kansas listings could just invite more attention from the federal government.

“It could probably cause the Fish and Wildlife Service to get more involved with endangered species in Kansas,” Tymeson said. “That would almost certainly make things more complex and expensive.”

Mike Hayden, a former governor of Kansas who has held high-ranking wildlife management positions on the state and federal levels, predicted any serious tinkering with endangered species or federal policies could lead to legal action.

“The citizens of Kansas will spend millions of dollars defending this in court, and eventually will lose,” Hayden said via e-mail.

Ending forever easements

During the past two decades, about 130,000 acres of privately owned land in Kansas have been enrolled in conservation easements stating the lands can never be developed. Most of the areas are native prairie or wetlands. This session, Powell, a rancher with oil interests, sponsored SB323, a bill that says conservation easements must end when the landowner dies. The bill is awaiting action in the full Senate. Smith understands Powell’s line of thought.

“It’s a lands rights issue. Once a person is deceased, they don’t really own the land,” Smith said. “As time changes, somebody who does own the land may want to develop that land.”

Rob Manes, director of the Nature Conservancy of Kansas, said “Kansas would be an embarrassment” if easements were ended. Currently, he said, 49 states offer perpetual easements. North Dakota has a 99-year limit.

“The appeal to people who care about their land is that it is a perpetual deal,” Manes said. “And people have been dealing with perpetuity for years with land use. If you sell the mineral or waters rights, those are gone. If you put in a big feedlot, that land is changed forever.”

Manes said easements have become a great tool for protecting stretches of tall grass prairie and wetlands, both of which are shrinking at alarming rates across America. Easements also can offer environmental good by helping to keep waters clean and offer important wildlife habitat.

“It’s a great way to get solid conservation practices and leave the lands in the hands of private landowners,” he said.

Mike Beam of the Ranchland Trust of Kansas and the Kansas Livestock Association said conservation easements provide landowners with peace of mind and often some needed money. Many who sign up for easements are paid from federal or private conservation funds, with the amount usually about how much the land is devalued because it can never be developed.

Such payments have helped some farm and ranch families make it through tough financial times, such as during the recent drought. He also said some ranchers look for enrolled lands to buy because they are at a reduced price and the land can still be used to graze cattle.

Manes said most landowners enrolled in conservation easements continue business as usual, with no restrictions put on existing agricultural practices.

Beam expressed frustration that a ban on easements in Kansas could come as the program is getting more funding. There’s a waiting list of landowners who want to enroll their land, he said.

“With the new farm bill, there’s going to be quite a bit of money available for easements over the next five years,” he said. “It would be good to have some of that money coming to Kansas rather than other states.”

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, sits on the natural resources committee and is frustrated the endangered species and easement bills are taking up so much time.

“My e-mails and calls have been very, very heavily weighted (toward opposing the bills). They say the system is working and want to keep it,” she said. “I think this is mostly being driven by the chairman of the committee.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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