Politics & Government

Prairie chicken revival fuels push by Kansas to end bird’s threatened species status

A male lesser prairie chicken in Edwards County.
A male lesser prairie chicken in Edwards County. File photo

The lesser prairie chicken population appears to be on the rebound a year after the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife placed the bird in threatened status.

The news has reinvigorated opposition to the bird’s status in Washington, D.C., where lawmakers from Kansas are leading efforts to revoke the bird’s federal protections, which they say impose burdensome regulations and land-use restrictions on businesses and landowners.

The latest strategy by the congressional delegation from Kansas — which is home to half the prairie chicken population — is to push legislation that would restrict federal officials’ use of funds to enforce the bird’s threatened species listing.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to add an amendment doing just that to a spending bill for the Department of the Interior. An identically worded amendment passed along party lines in the Senate Appropriations Committee in June. The bills carrying those amendments now await floor votes in both chambers.

If enacted into law, the Kansan-sponsored amendments would not alter the lesser prairie chicken’s threatened status, but Fish and Wildlife would be financially constrained from carrying out its conservation program for the bird under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

“This listing has Americans crying foul in Kansas and all across the country,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., in a floor speech laden with chicken puns supporting the amendment he sponsored in the House.

Designating the bird as threatened is misguided, Yoder argued, because “the lesser prairie chicken is actually becoming the greater prairie chicken in some respects, gaining in population significantly each of the last several years.”

The lesser prairie chicken is a species of grouse with feathered feet and striped plumage that lives in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado.

In 2013, the year before it received the threatened designation from Fish and Wildlife, the bird’s population hit a record low of 17,616.

But a recent aerial survey conducted by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimated the bird’s population at 29,162, a 25 percent since last year, on top of a 20 percent jump from 2013-14.

For Yoder and others opposed to the listing, the results of this year’s prairie chicken population survey seem to bolster their belief that a years-long drought in the bird’s habitat was the biggest threat facing the species, not human development.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who sponsored the prairie chicken amendment in the Senate, wrote a letter this week to Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking whether the agency intends to reconsider listing the bird as threatened given the substantial uptick in its population.

“We don’t need burdensome regulations from federal government dictating land use practices and hindering our rural economy,” Moran wrote. “More rainfall, as well as locally-driven, voluntary conservation plans developed with stakeholder input, will do far more for the bird’s conservation than bureaucrats and regulators in Washington.”

The Fish and Wildlife agency said in a statement that officials are pleased to see the increase in lesser prairie chicken numbers, which they attribute in part to a wet year, in addition to conservation efforts

But even with the population increases over the past two years, the bird’s numbers are still very low, and more work is needed.

“In order to achieve the (target) population numbers … there will need to be many more years of similar increases, so we’re not out of the woods yet,” the statement said.

As part of Fish and Wildlife’s conservation efforts last year, the federal government paid $117,357 in incentives to landowners to preserve 37,767 acres for lesser prairie chicken habitat.

More than 170 energy and telecommunication companies also signed agreements to minimize or avoid operations in areas where the bird lives, and paid $45 million in fees for mitigation efforts and as compensation for “unavoidable impacts” on the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat.

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