Kansas will join lawsuit over federal listing of lesser prairie chicken as threatened

06/30/2014 7:38 PM

08/06/2014 11:19 AM

Kansas will join a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, Gov. Sam Brownback announced Friday.

“The federal government made this decision despite concerns raised by the states directly affected by this decision,” Brownback said.

“This is an overreach by the federal government and is another example of the Obama administration aggressively and unnecessarily intruding into our daily lives.”

The state will sue even though the federal Fish and Wildlife Service will grant Kansas and the four other states the lesser prairie chicken inhabits a special exemption to proceed with an already-planned five-state conservation plan.

Kansas officials said they do not yet know what additional federal regulations might be imposed by the designation of the birds as threatened.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt next week will add the state as a plaintiff to the lawsuit filed by Oklahoma, before state officials see the federal rules.

There are about 17,616 lesser prairie chickens in the world, spread mostly among Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The birds’ numbers have dropped dramatically – 84 percent in the past 15 years and 50 percent in the last year alone – prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to add them to a list of threatened species. Landowners and politicians worry that the listing could wreck havoc on their economies by limiting land use and raising regulatory costs.

Brownback said the designation would have a substantial negative impact on the state’s industries, specifically agriculture, oil and wind energy.

He said the federal government should have let Kansas and other states proceed with their conservation plans and should not have designated the species as threatened, which is a step down from endangered but still allows for specific protections for an animal.

In its announcement of the threatened species designation, the Fish and Wildlife Service praised the five-state plan and said it would invoke an exception in the Endangered Species Act to “allow the five range states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the … range-wide conservation plan.”

Still, Brownback insisted that the designation would come with additional federal regulations.

Secretary Robin Jennison of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, and Brant Laue, chief counsel for the governor’s office, said the regulations would not be known until Fish and Wildlife presents them in the near future.

“We haven’t seen the final rule yet. … But it’s our anticipation that this will result in enhanced intrusion into the operations of agricultural landowners and energy,” Laue said.

Jennison dismissed the need to place the bird on the list. He said he was frustrated by the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service, as the state had been working with the agency and other states on a conservation plan for three years.

“We’ve got our scientists, as they’ve got their scientists. I think our scientists are as good as their scientists and our scientists understand Kansas much better than theirs do,” he said.

Jennison argued that the state’s scientists had more closely studied the short-term effects of drought on the birds’ population in the state.

“Ours have a little bit more common-sense approach to these types of issues than do scientists who work for the federal government,” he added.

Jennison argued that the range-wide plan, which will provide 3.6 million acres to lesser prairie chicken conservation, negates the need for the threatened species designation.

The Fish and Wildlife Service praised the plan and promised to allow it to go forward.

“Yes, they praised it,” Brownback said. “Why didn’t they just stay there instead of then listing it as a threatened species? Because now you bring in a whole series of additional things with it.”

On Thursday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement that the agency had no intention of adding new regulations.

“The states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species – more than has ever been done before – and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements,” Ashe said.

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, a conservationist society, said he was amazed by Brownback and other officials’ reaction to the designation.

“They are imagining that there is a dragon and saying that they are going to go slay it when in fact there’s no dragon there,” Klataske said.

He said all the threatened species designation does is allow more federal funds to go toward conservation efforts for the lesser prairie chicken.

Earlier in the session, the Senate passed SB 276, which declares “state sovereignty over non-migratory wildlife.” In other words, the federal government would be prohibited from regulating species like the lesser prairie chicken. Whether the federal government would accept this is doubtful at best.

The House has not acted on the bill. Brownback said the administration was looking at it.

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