By Travis Perry
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — A decision pending with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could have huge ramifications for rural Kansans living in the western third of the state.
In limbo is the question of whether the lesser prairie-chicken should be listed as a “threatened” species under provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The species inhabits land spanning Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.
But while the bird has boasted strong numbers during the past few decades, according to figures provided by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, a recent population dip could spur government intervention from on high.
Opponents of such a move argue the impact would be astronomical. Jobs would be lost, development would be stymied and the economic cost could be in the billions, they say.
Kansas, in cooperation with the four other states affected by the issue — a coalition known as the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies — has attempted to stave-off such a decision with the development of a Range-wide Conservation Plan for the lesser prairie-chicken.
While lauding the plan, USFWS previously stated it won’t necessarily stop a reclassification of the chicken.
This is where state lawmakers come into play, with regard to SB 276. The legislation, discussed by the state Senate Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, would nullify any federal move to regulate and protect both the lesser and greater prairie-chicken species.
It wouldn’t be the first time Kansas has challenged the feds. Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation exempting all guns manufactured and owned in Kansas from federal regulation, a move that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in May was unconstitutional.
“From our member standpoint, this listing is devastating,” said Steve Swaffar, public policy director for Kansas Farm Bureau.
From restricting growth of wind turbine development to jeopardizing mineral rights, Swaffar said many rural Kansans have significant reservations about USFWS plans, as well as the state RWCP, for the lesser prairie-chicken.
“If we can pass this bill, many of you would go home heroes, because our members are extremely concerned what the loss of that income might be,” he said.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told state senators the bill almost certainly would be challenged in court to the tune of $100,000 to $400,000. But Kobach argued it would be a small price to pay to protect rural Kansans from the heavy hand of federal regulation.
“If we don’t fight this fight, and the prairie chicken is listed, the cost to Kansas counties, landowners and local governments will be in the billions,” Kobach said. “I believe this is a fight that’s worth fighting.”
Kansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. CEO Bruce Graham said the state’s RWCP could cause electric-related costs to skyrocket.
“Our cooperatives calculate that mitigation costs range from $11,000 to nearly $22,000, paid up front, in order to construct just one mile of distribution line,” Graham stated Thursday. “Projections for transmission line mitigation assessments could add an astounding $870,000 to the cost of a mile of line — nearly doubling the cost of transmission construction.”
Those costs undoubtedly would be passed along to rural consumers.
But so far, some of the strongest rebukes have come from members of the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition, a group of 32 western Kansas counties opposed to reclassification of the lesser prairie-chicken. KNRC member and Sherman County Commission President Ken Klemm called the RWCP and its “voluntary” participation nothing short of extortion.
In a December opinion piece published in the Hays Daily News, Klemm wrote:
“It works like this: If you want ‘protection’ from the risk that you might kill or harm the bird, or its habitat, you have to sign up for the plan. No matter that there might not be any birds in your area, the threat holds true in perpetuity since the federal government one day might decide it wants birds there. Of course, this is strictly ‘voluntary,’ so you can choose not to buy the ‘protection.’
“If this sounds like a script out of a Chicago gangster movie where the bad guys sell ‘fire protection’ to honest, hard-working shopkeepers, that’s because that’s just what it’s like; a protection racket, sponsored by the federal government.”
The initial RWCP buy-in isn’t cheap. The initial “mitigation fee” to private landowners is $2.25 per gross acre for the first three years of the plan. During the first decade, WAFWA estimates it will pull in as much as $247.3 million from all industries participating in the RWCP. Mitigation costs must be paid, in full, before any potential land development could move forward with federal blessing.
“These costs represent a direct siphon of local operating capital,” said Jim Carlson, KNRC executive director.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Carlson points to a provision within the RWCP that states “the most current payment rates will be posted on the WAFWA website.” Carlson said he interprets this to mean that fee rates are subject to change.
USFWS says the historical range of the lesser prairie-chicken has shrunk by 84 percent because of development and agricultural activities. Last year, the bird’s population dropped dramatically from slightly more than 34,000 to less than 18,000. KDWPT officials asserted the decline was because of drought conditions, and that normal rainfall will boost the lesser prairie-chicken’s numbers back to normal levels.
Leslie Gray, USFWS public affairs specialist, argued while extreme weather events like drought have contributed to the population decrease, so have habitat fragmentation and land development.
“For the chicken, it’s a combination of factors, not just one,” Gray said. Map.