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FWS lists prairie chicken as threatened

3/28/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It was difficult to find anyone happy with the decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision was announced Thursday afternoon in a briefing with congressional staff members in the five states where the birds can be found.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was listing the bird as threatened "in response to the rapid and severe decline of the lesser prairie chicken."

"That is bad news," said Jim Pitman, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and a member of the team that developed a five-state conservation plan endorsed by the federal agency. "It's going to make it harder to conserve the species."

"We don't think they're justified in doing that," said Mahlon Tuttle, a Gove County commissioner and vice president of a 32-county coalition that sought to keep the bird from being listed.

Both Kansas Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts voiced concern about the decision, fearful it might hamper development in oil and gas exploration, as well as agriculture.

"I have actively opposed listing the lesser prairie chicken, especially during an ongoing drought and when it causes considerable economic hardship for Kansans," Roberts said in a statement.

He went on to say FWS should have taken into account voluntary conservation efforts before moving ahead with the listing.

"I am disappointed fish and wildlife ignored our attempts to conserve the prairie chicken's habitat and moved ahead with the listing," Roberts said. "We will fight to undo this foolish and overly prescriptive rule."

Moran said the listing will have "real consequences" in Kansas.

"I am confident there are ways to address conserving the species while not hampering economic growth and farming and ranching activities," Moran said. "As conservation efforts are considered, producers deserve the flexibility to implement plans that fit their operations."

Even Gov. Sam Brownback, who vowed to sue if necessary to stop the listing, weighed in.

"This is an overreach on the part of the federal government," Brownback said, "and I am concerned about the effect this designation will have on Kansans and the Kansas economy. We are looking at possible responses on this issue."

Despite the listing, FWS in its statement said it was issuing what's called a final 4(d) rule it said would "limit regulatory impacts on landowners and businesses from this listing."

FWS, in its announcement, released through Moran's office, said the rule will "allow the five range state 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" cover under what's known a a rangewide conservation plan.

That plan, developed by fish and game agencies from Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, sets out conservation efforts it claims will boost population numbers.

The species population dropped precipitously last year, hitting a record low of less than 18,000 birds -- half what it was the year before.

A five-state conservation plan established a goal of boosting numbers to 67,000 birds rangewide.