Purchase photos

Conservation plan nearly complete

5/3/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

WaKEENEY -- Wildlife biologist Jim Pitman hopes a now-352 page conservation plan will be enough to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

Doing so effectively would end the state's hunting season for the birds.

But Pitman also recognizes that because the conservation plan is entirely voluntary -- on the part of those who might disrupt prairie chicken habitat and those who own land where habitat can be maintained -- it's going to be crucial to get electric, wind and oil and gas developers on board.

They will be crucial to the actual funding of the conservation -- or mitigation -- efforts necessary under the plan.

That's why he's hoping FWS will provide a six-month extension on its deadline to make a decision -- the maximum they can delay the process under the terms of a court settlement covering more than 300 species the federal agency has delayed taking action on.

That six months, he said, will let Kansas and the four other states with lesser prairie chickens -- Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas -- reach agreements with wind, electric and oil and gas developers.

Absent their participation, Pitman said, it's likely FWS will move ahead with listing the bird as threatened, which could restrict activity where the birds live.

Pitman, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism's small game coordinator, was joined Tuesday by representatives of the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource and Conservation Service, for a problem-plagued online broadcast.

The format of the program was changed at the last minute, even though arrangements had been made for an interactive webinar at 17 locations across Kansas.

It was the last meeting to talk about the conservation plan being prepared by the five states. KDWP&T already conducted six meetings across Kansas as versions of the plan have been developed.

Written comments on the plan must be submitted by May 15.

The plan sets out habitat areas -- focal areas -- for the lesser prairie chicken, as well as mitigation costs for voluntary partners.

Those costs could be extensive, perhaps more than $100,000 for a oil and gas well in an pristine area.

Roads and distribution power lines could call for mitigation contributions of nearly $31,000 a mile in the best areas down to $15,000 a mile in the least desirable areas.

Wind farms and massive power lines would pay the most, primarily because they affect the biggest area.

Owners of participating wind farms would pay as much as $1.3 million for each new wind turbine or commercial building.

Powerlines transporting more than 69,000 volts of electricity across previously unaffected land could see costs of up to $1.2 million per mile.

Participation, however, would be voluntary.

"We don't have anything signed up," Pittman said of utility or oil companies, "but they are sitting at the table."

Pittman said he hopes a final copy of the five-state plan will be submitted by June 1.

* Comments on the plan can be made by email to janc@gci.net or Jan Caulfield Consulting, 114 S. Franklin, Ste. 205, Juneau, AK 99801.