Eagle editorial: Prairie chicken plan misguided

07/18/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan for the state to raise and release lesser prairie chickens didn’t help his argument that Kansas should be trusted to protect the threatened species. It’s hard to be taken seriously when scientists are laughing.

The plan, which Brownback announced last week, was quickly dismissed and mocked by biologists. And for good reason.

In addition to being costly to raise lesser prairie chickens in captivity, very few of them survive when released into the wild.

“There are numerous studies all over the country, with different research techniques, that all come to that same conclusion: It just doesn’t work,” said Randy Rodgers, a retired biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Brownback is correct to be concerned about the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision earlier this year to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species. Though the agency invoked a special exception in the Endangered Species Act to allow Kansas to proceed with an already planned five-state conservation plan, many agriculture and energy experts still worry that the listing could bring costly restrictions on land use that could harm the Kansas economy.

That worry is understandable, given the regulatory uncertainty. However, mitigators who help landowners and oil companies work around the regulations also may be exaggerating some of the concern to generate business. Conservationists contend that there are so many exemptions that the threatened-species listing is mostly meaningless.

“It’s almost impossible to conceive how someone could violate the rule other than by deliberately going out and shooting a chicken,” said Jason Rylander, a staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, one of three environmental groups that are suing for more aggressive protections of the birds.

Brownback is also correct that federal agencies are working against one another. One reason for the drop in lesser prairie chickens is a loss of habitat. And one reason for that is reductions in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to place environmentally sensitive acreage out of production. A better approach to protecting threatened species is through programs such as CRP, Brownback has argued, not more regulations.

Brownback also correctly notes that the other big reason for the population decline is the drought – which is beyond anyone’s control. “When the drought ends, the population will rebound,” he said.

In fact, estimates of the bird’s population increased 20 percent this year, thanks to increased rain that improved habitat.

Brownback is on target with many of his comments and concerns about the threatened-species listing and potential federal intervention. But his plan to raise and release prairie chickens is for the birds.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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