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Legislature weighing in on ferrets

2/15/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

With just a week left to comment on a proposal aimed at the recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret, a pair of hearings are taking place on the issue in the Kansas Legislature.

The final hearing, for opponents of a legislative resolution, was conducted this morning before the Committee on Natural Resources.

Its chairman, Sen. Larry Powell, and a ranking member, Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, whose Federal and State Affairs Committee drafted the resolution, long have been ardent opponents of the ferret reintroduction program in Logan County.

That opposition falls to the requirement for prairie dogs, upon which the ferrets depend for food and shelter.

The prairie dogs have been the driving force behind the opposition, from agencies and farmers and ranchers in the Logan County area.

Thursday, supporters of the resolution -- the Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Department of Agriculture -- testified, along with one opponent.

How much weight the resolution will have on the so-called safe-harbor agreement proposal is uncertain.

Audubon of Kansas director Ron Klataske said it will have a negative effect.

"It reflects very poorly on the state of Kansas and our Legislature," he said. "Plus it makes the job of the department of wildlife and parks more difficult ... to work with federal agencies.

"The resolution itself is filled with false statements and assertions. If they are going to have a resolution, it should be based on facts."

Ostmeyer said he carried the resolution forward at the request of ferret reintroduction opponents in Logan County.

Scott County resident Sheila Ellis sought the resolution and objects to the plan being proposed by FWS.

"Within this initiative," she said in a letter to The Hays Daily News, "they are planning to compensate landowners to 'conserve' prairie dogs on their properties or in other words, they are planning to pay landowners to maintain prairie dog infestations."

Pete Gober, the federal wildlife agency's ferret recovery coordinator, said the program is voluntary, with a goal of getting at least 3,000 breeding age ferrets in the animal's historic range.

"If you want to have ferrets you have to have prairie dogs," he said.

And that's the rub, enough to bring opposition to the forefront. So far, only about 50 comments have been submitted, about 10 of them from Logan County.

While he's not yet sure how many sites are needed, it's likely to be only 80 to 100. He thinks it would take a minimum of 1,500 acres of prairie dogs to support a population of 30 ferrets, the smallest group possible to manage.

"We have 20 sites now," he said.

To boost participation, landowners would be paid, likely through the Natural Resource and Conservation Service as part of its species recovery programs, much like they are doing with lesser prairie chickens or sage grouse.

How much they'll be paid is still uncertain, especially with so much uncertainty on how Congress will deal with conservation programs in an as-yet unwritten farm bill.

It's not a new program, Gober said, with several in place across the country.

If it passes muster, the safe harbor program could begin this fall, he said.

* Additional details on the program are available online at www.blackfootedferret.org.

Comments must be submitted by Feb. 22. They can be submitted by email to FerretSHA@fws.gov.