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Lesser prairie chicken population on the rebound; future impact on farmers unclear

Lesser prairie chicken population on the rebound; future impact on farmers unclear
Garden City Telegram
Story by Angie Haflich
Photo by Brad Nading
 
Aug.19, 2015
 
HUGOTON — There is both good news and bad news when it comes to the status of the lesser prairie chicken.

The good news is the population, which inhabits western Kansas and areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, has gone up by 50 percent since 2013, in large part because of the region receiving more rain.

That is what state and national Farm Bureau officials said Wednesday at the Stevens County Legislative Update and Farm Tour.

In 2014, the lesser prairie chicken was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species due to habitat loss.

But many local farmers, ranchers and others argued population numbers were impacted by the lack of rainfall in the area. That includes Gov. Sam Brownback, who made a brief appearance as part of a tour through southwest Kansas Wednesday.

“My real sense is rain has an amazing effect on a lot of things, including prairie chickens, and it’s up 50 percent and that’s a function of rain,” Brownback said. “I said to them all along, I said, ‘It’s rain. That’s what we need. We aren’t getting any rain. You get some rain, you’ll get prairie chickens.’”

Jim Sipes, director of Kansas Farm Bureau’s ninth district, which includes Finney, Grant, Greeley, Hamilton, Haskell, Kearny, Morton, Stanton, Stevens, Seward and Wichita counties, said the population, after dropping from about 34,000 to 17,000 in 2013, increased to 22,000 in 2014 and to 29,000 in 2015.

“Again, it’s largely because of the weather. We’ve been saying since the beginning of this, in the many meetings I’ve had with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service folks or Department of Interior folks, that drought was the cause of the decline. And as we see more rainfall, we see more chickens,” Sipes said. “(This is) proof positive, in my mind, that we’ve been correct all along.”

Sipes said despite that, it’s unlikely the lesser prairie chicken will be removed from the threatened species list any time soon. In fact, he worries its status actually could be elevated to endangered, or that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will declare its habitat areas as “critical habitats,” which are specific geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species.

Sipes said that designation could dictate what farmers and ranchers can and can’t do on their land, including what crops they will be able to produce and whether they will be able to spray their fields, among other things.
Sipes said the lesser prairie chicken’s primary habitat includes 39 counties in Kansas, the majority of which are in the southwestern part of the state.

He said nearly 98 percent of Stevens County is considered lesser prairie chicken habitat.

“So it’s a big issue for you guys, as it is for me and my hometown,” said Sipes, a resident of Stanton County and farmer in Morton County.

Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for American Farm Bureau, said if the endangered species designation does occur it would be devastating to the agricultural industry.

He said the endangered listing status of the spotted owl devastated the timber industry in California in the early 1990s.

“And if you look at these single species that are out there, the lesser prairie chicken has the potential to devastate the ag industry, just like we’ve seen the spotted owl devastate the timber industry,” Yates said.

He said it isn’t clear whether the rebound in the chickens’ population will matter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but agreed with Sipes that it isn’t likely to result in the species coming off the list. He said the listing of shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

“We did not need to list the chicken. We didn’t. We had state and local conservation efforts in place, landowner participation,” Yates said. “Those conservation efforts, had they been maintained at the state and local level, we would have seen continued conservation efforts leading to increases in the population.”

He said the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was enacted in 1973, is ineffective at what it’s designed for — the recovery of endangered species.

“Forty-two years we’ve had this law in place, we’ve seen less than 2 percent of the roughly 1,600 species that have been listed actually recovered and pulled off the list,” Yates said, adding that it takes a great deal of effort to get a species removed from the list even when its population is on the rebound.

Sipes said the threatened listing already has resulted in impacts to oil and gas, which many smaller counties in southwest Kansas rely on as the biggest portion of its tax base.

He said reducing the impact of oil and gas development is something the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) is proposing as part of its conservation efforts involving the lesser prairie chicken.

WAFWA is an association of 19 states and three Canadian provinces that looks for ways to keep the lesser prairie chicken and other threatened species off the endangered list.

Sipes said those who participate in the WAFWA plan can get an exemption for agricultural work and some oil and gas development within the areas inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken, but it comes at a high price.

“What happens is if an oil and gas rig starts to develop in a prime habitat area, they have to pay thousands of dollars to develop there. If they want to put in a wind generator there, they may have to pay as much as $800,000 to develop there, in the WAFWA plan,” Sipes said.

He said Farm Bureau has been developing its own stakeholder conservation strategy to help offset some of those economic effects. The plan is more balanced that allows farmers and ranchers to bid on habitat, but also costs the oil and gas companies less.

“We think our plan is a balanced plan, allowing for energy development to occur, primarily because we’re not charging so much,” he said.

He said the plan is still a work in progress, but that the hope is it will rewrite the rules about how endangered species are handled, and allow it to be handled by stakeholders instead of government or bureaucracies.

Sipes added it would be a non-profit that would include farmers, ranchers, oil and gas officials and wildlife groups.

"Everybody that's a stakeholder will be around the table, that's how we'll oversee it," he said.