Sen. Jerry Moran: Need a balanced approach on lesser prairie chickens

07/27/2014 12:00 AM

07/25/2014 6:36 PM

We received word this spring from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director that the lesser prairie chicken would be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This is not welcome news, as the listing has real consequences for a number of Kansas industries.

Oil and gas development is one Kansas industry already being impacted by the new regulations. For example, Vess Oil Corp. has ceased drilling in western Kansas (June 4 Eagle).

For Kansas farmers and ranchers like Jarvis Garetson, who farms in Haskell, Gray and Finney counties, the lesser prairie chicken listing will increase uncertainty.

“The lesser prairie chicken listing has the potential to cause great disruptions for Kansas farmers and ranchers,” he said. “A better conservation approach must be found to protect the species, while providing producers with the certainty they need to maintain and grow their operations.”

For utility companies such as Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp., the listing is yet another federal regulatory burden that will result in higher prices for consumers.

Scarcity of rainfall, especially in the western half of the state, has put the lesser prairie chicken population in flux. According to an August 2013 Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism survey, “Since 2004 there has been a significant declining trend in the (lesser prairie chicken) index but the negative slope is mostly due to recent declines associated with severe drought conditions (not habitat loss).” This corroborates that the drought is contributing to the bird’s declining population.

To avoid the lesser prairie chicken’s threatened species designation, I have been working with colleagues across the aisle over the past two years. Along with nine Republican and Democratic senators, I called last summer on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay a listing decision by six months – the maximum amount of time allowed by federal law. This effort resulted in an extension and additional time for evaluation of the science behind the listing decision. It also gave Kansas and affected states an opportunity to demonstrate alternative plans for species conservation. That call was a follow-up to a February 2013 letter that brought about an extension to the comment period.

Gov. Sam Brownback has urged U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel to reconsider the existing conservation programs – the Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program – instead of implementing new federal regulations. I’m supportive of that effort and am confident there are ways to address conserving the species without hampering economic growth, as well as farming and ranching activities. In fact, even conservation organizations such as Audubon of Kansas support the governor’s approach to increase CRP land as a way to reverse a loss of habitat.

As conservation efforts are considered, producers deserve the flexibility to implement plans that fit their operations. Additionally, it will be imperative to account for ongoing species recovery developments. That’s why I introduced legislation this month to protect producers from the consequences of the listing. The legislation would prohibit the Agriculture and Interior departments from altering any land-management practices based on the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.

I am committed to working with federal and state wildlife departments to make certain the measures implemented are based on sound science and common sense, as well as represent the best interest of producers. We will continue to do what we can to assist folks who are working to solve the problem and avoid thwarting industries vital to our state’s economy.

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