Kansas joins lawsuit against listing prairie chicken as ‘threatened’; real threat may be to ranchers, oil producers

(The Sentinel) — Attempts by the federal government to list the lesser prairie chicken — a type of grouse — as “threatened” under the endangered species act are nothing new, and have been ongoing since at least the Obama administration.

But on April 12, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach joined Texas and Oklahoma in bringing a lawsuit against the Biden administration, arguing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke the law by designating the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species in Kansas under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the lawsuit, the listing fails to adequately consider pre-existing and ongoing voluntary measures to protect the lesser prairie chickens, as well as the fact that rainfall amounts are the dominant factor in prairie chicken populations. It also restricts the personal property rights of Kansas landowners. And, the suit argues, it is unconstitutional.

“These DC bureaucrats have probably never even stepped foot in the state of Kansas, let alone seen a prairie chicken,” Kobach said in a release. “Yet there they sit in their offices 1,000 miles away making decisions that will directly affect Kansans’ lives.

“This listing will make drilling new oil wells in western Kansas almost impossible. It will force ranchers to get approval from federally designated agencies to graze cattle on their own property. It will have devastating impacts on Kansas ranchers, Kansas oil producers and even Kansas wind farms.”

The lawsuit makes the case that cattle operations — which are substantial in Southwest Kansas — would be particularly hard hit.

“Under the Final Rule, Kansas cattle ranchers will need to follow a site-specific grazing plan developed by a Service-approved third party to continue operating or risk violating the ESA. Grazing management plans will restrict Kansas cattle ranchers’ freedom to graze their cattle in the most advantageous manner based on conditions that vary from day to day. This will adversely impact grazing activities, which will adversely impact Kansas cattle ranchers’ profits, which will reduce tax revenue derived by the State from cattle ranching.”

The lesser prairie chickens’ historic range includes Kansas and — according to the lawsuit — currently provides habitat for the most extensive remaining range and largest population of the bird. Indeed, over 70% of the estimated population is within Kansas.

The American Farm Bureau Federation agrees with the potential for damage to already fragile rural economies, and notes that while populations of the bird had been on the increase in recent years, drought — which plays a significant role in the LPC’s life cycle — has reduced the bird’s numbers.

“Lesser prairie chicken numbers are substantially driven by rainfall,” Kobach said. “Historically, their numbers decline when there is a drought, but they rebound dramatically once the rain returns.”

According to AFB, LPC populations increased about 50% between 2012-14 and 2020-21 (no surveys were completed in 2019). During the same timeframe, agricultural production by value in the states covered by the “final rule” hovered around $55 billion in nominal (current) dollars.

“In other words, LPC populations have been able to recover by 50% while agricultural production in the region remained relatively stable,” AFB writes. “The rule admits ‘grazing by domestic livestock is not inherently detrimental to lesser prairie-chicken management and, in many cases, is needed to maintain appropriate vegetative structure’ when appropriate grassland management approaches are followed; grazing approaches most ranchers in the region have voluntarily put into practice to improve land productivity.”

In 2010, environmental groups, ranchers and wildlife officials in south central Kansas teamed up to try to block the construction of power lines from wind farms in the area that would have run through prime breeding territory for the bird.

Kansas was, at the time, the last state in the nation which had a hunting season for the lesser prairie chicken, although that unit is currently closed because of drought-related losses and the ESA listing.

In 2013, New Mexico farmers took to the streets to protest a previous attempt to list the bird as “threatened.”

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