Thursday, February 6, 2014

Jennison says rangeland plan for Lesser Prairie Chicken preferable to threatened species listing

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — Despite grousing from Gov. Sam Brownback and many legislators, Kansas will face some kind of federal action to protect the Lesser Prairie Chicken, according to the state's top wildlife official.

Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison told a legislative committee that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will either put in place a rangewide conservation plan to protect the bird, or list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Fish and Wildlife has said the population of the Lesser Prairie Chicken has fallen dramatically as 90 percent of its former range has been taken due to extensive conversion of prairies to croplands.

"Kansas would be far better off with the rangewide plan than to have it listed," Jennison said.

"If the Lesser Prairie Chicken is listed it is going to have a dramatic impact on Kansas both economically and socially," Jennison said during a recent House Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget meeting.

Agriculture and energy interests have said if the Lesser Prairie Chicken is listed as a threatened species that will increase their costs because they will have to avoid disturbing the bird's habitat.

Brownback has told Don Ashe, director of Fish and Wildlife, that listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species isn't justified and would invite litigation from the state.

Brownback has said the drop-off in Lesser Prairie Chicken population is "directly related" to the recent drought and that bird numbers will recover as the drought ends.

"In short, the recent drought conditions should not serve as a basis for species listing," Brownback said.

And a bill is moving through the Legislature that says federal officials would have no authority in Kansas over the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

But a rangewide plan, which has been put together by wildlife officials in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, would be less strict than a threatened species listing, Jennison said.

The rangewide plan, which has already won the endorsement of Fish and Wildlife, would include programs that would assure willing landowners that if they improve Lesser Prairie Chicken habitat they wouldn't be subject to additional restrictions on land management, according to Fish and Wildlife. It would also provide exemptions from fines or prosecution for accidental damage or death of birds occurring in routine practices or activities of landowners.

Jennison has said state wildlife officials have been dealing with Fish and Wildlife on the Lesser Prairie Chicken issue for three years, and that the rangewide plan is preferable to a threatened listing.

And while Jennison has remained neutral on the bill that would attempt to nullify possible federal action on the Lesser Prairie Chicken, he told legislators that avoiding all federal action on the bird "just isn't going to happen."

Fish and Wildlife is accepting public comment on the rangewide plan through Feb. 12. Here is how comments can be submitted:

Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: In the Search box, enter FWS–R2–ES–2012–0071, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”

By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R2–ES–2012–0071; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.