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Kansas seceding on wildlife

5/9/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

In the final moments of the session, Kansas legislators passed a measure declaring the state's sovereignty over non-migratory wildlife.

The bill specifically targets both lesser and greater prairie chickens, a measure pushed all session by Sen. Larry Powell, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

In addition to the sovereignty bill, Powell also unsuccessfully sought to repeal the state's threatened and endangered species law.

Powell didn't return a phone call to his residence in Garden City.

With the sovereignty bill now on the way to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's desk, Audubon of Kansas director Ron Klataske is urging conservationists to call the governor.

Wichita attorney Randy Rathbun called it political posturing, a move he said ultimately will cost Kansas taxpayers and won't last long in court.

Rathbun successfully fought off an effort by Logan County to use a state law to trump the federal Endangered Species Act in its bid to eradicate prairie dogs where the endangered black-footed ferret has been reintroduced.

"They ought to pull out the Court of Appeals decision in the prairie dog case," Rathbun said of the state's push to ward off U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervention involving the lesser prairie chicken.

FWS in late March added the lesser prairie chicken to the federal endangered species list, but also handed down a series of rules essentially handing off responsibility for conservation to the five states where the species can be found.

The federal wildlife agency early on endorsed the conservation plan put together by the five states -- Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

The idea behind the plan is to collect money from participants, especially those in the oil and gas industry and other energy developers, and then use it to pay landowners to protect habitat critical for the birds.

The federal agency's designation of the lesser prairie chicken, however, has been blasted, and Kansas soon joined with Oklahoma and other plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit aimed at the settlement agreement prompting the threatened designation for the bird.

Rathbun, who also serves as chairman of the board of directors of Audubon of Kansas, predicted the state would hire attorneys to defend its sovereignty measure -- if Brownback signs it into law.

"The state is not only going to pay their attorneys, but they're also going to pay the attorneys on the other side," he predicted.

Rathbun agreed the state's cost of defending the measure might ultimately top $400,000.

"It's silly," Klataske said of the measure passed by legislators. "And it was passed as a way of giving Sen. Powell something."

Klataske said Powell's efforts "could be seen as a war on wildlife."

While Powell has been its primary supporter, the bill was actually crafted by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He wrote the bill as part of a gesture of support for the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition, a consortium of 32 western Kansas counties that opposed the listing of the lesser prairie chicken.

Although Klataske said the provisions in the bill have been watered down, he still called it "a very unfortunate measure."

He's also concerned about a provision allowing county attorneys or the Kansas attorney general to go to court to stop any federal employee from "enforcing any federal regulation or executive action" involving lesser or greater prairie chickens, their habitats, farming practices affecting them or "other human activity that affects such species or the habitats of such species."

The bill applies only to the federal wildlife agency, but not to either the U.S. department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Klataske isn't sure what Brownback will do on the bill, if he'll sign it or veto it.

"I hope not," he said of Brownback signing the bill into law. "If I have to wager, I think there's a higher chance he will than he won't."