This Spring, we received word from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Director that the lesser prairie chicken would be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This is not welcome news as the listing has real consequences for a number of Kansas industries.
Oil and gas development is one Kansas industry already being impacted by the new regulations. For example, The Wichita Eagle recently reported Vess Oil Corp. has ceased drilling in western Kansas.
For Kansas farmers and ranchers like Jarvis Garetson, who farms in Haskell, Gray and Finney Counties, the lesser prairie chicken listing will increase uncertainty.
“The lesser prairie chicken listing has the potential to cause great disruptions for Kansas farmers and ranchers. A better conservation approach must be found to protect the species, while providing producers with the certainty they need to maintain and grow their operations,” Garetson said.
For utility companies like the Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, the listing is yet another federal regulatory burden that will result in higher prices for consumers.
“Complying with this listing increases costs and limits our flexibility for routing and constructing electric lines,” Sunflower Electric President and CEO Stuart Lowry said. “Unfortunately, the costs are passed along to consumers through higher electric bills. While consumers are forced to pay higher rates, the underlying problem is the lesser prairie chicken listing.”
Scarcity of rainfall, especially in the western half of the state, has put the lesser prairie chicken population in flux. According to an August 2013 Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism survey, “…since 2004 there has been a significant declining trend in the LPCH index but the negative slope is mostly due to recent declines associated with severe drought conditions (not habitat loss).” This corroborates that the drought is contributing to the bird’s declining population.
To avoid the lesser prairie chicken’s threatened species designation, I have been working with colleagues across the aisle over the past two years. Last summer, along with nine Republican and Democratic Senators, I called on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services delay a listing decision by six months — the maximum amount of time allowed by federal law. This effort resulted in an extension and additional time for evaluation of the science behind the listing decision. It also gave Kansas and affected states an opportunity to demonstrate alternative plans for species conservation. That call was a follow-up to a February 2013 letter that brought about an extension to the comment period.
This month, Governor Sam Brownback urged U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewel to reconsider the existing conservation programs — Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) — instead of implementing new federal regulations. I’m supportive of that effort and am confident there are ways to address conserving the species without hampering economic growth, as well as farming and ranching activities. In fact, even conservation organizations like Audubon of Kansas support the governor’s approach to increase CRP land as a way to reverse a loss of habitat.
As conservation efforts are considered, producers deserve the flexibility to implement plans that fit their operations. Additionally, it will be imperative to account for ongoing species recovery developments. That’s why I introduced legislation last week to protect producers from the consequences of the listing. The legislation would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of the Interior from altering any land management practices based on the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.
I am committed to working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to make certain the measures implemented are based on sound science and common sense, as well as represent the best interest of producers. We will continue to do what we can to assist folks who are working to solve the problem and avoid thwarting industries vital to our state’s economy.