Feb. 16–Across western Kansas, folks like Stanton County farmer Jim Sipes are trying to “Stop Fowl Play.”
Farm leaders say an upcoming court decision regarding prairie chickens could affect their rural life. They are taking proactive measures in an effort to make sure that doesn’t happen.
In essence, it’s the largest swath of private land to ever be affected by an Endangered Species Act listing — 20 million acres that span 85 counties and five states.
And for Sipes and others who make a living here, that’s concerning.
With numbers falling to fewer than 18,000 birds in 2013 — a 50 percent drop from the previous year — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials last spring said they could no longer overlook the bird’s dramatic drop and declared the lesser prairie chicken threatened.
The listing has brought multiple lawsuits from both sides on the issue. While no one wants to see the birds die out, the listing has prompted angst from farmers and ranchers, along with defiance from lawmakers in the chicken’s five-state habitat area. They cite potential for stringent land restrictions, exorbitant costs of doing business and a deterrent of economic growth.
But environmental groups say the action isn’t enough — that the birds should be endangered.
Late last year, the Kansas Farm Bureau, along with support from the Kansas Corn Growers Association, started the Stop Fowl Play campaign in an effort to educate residents about the prairie chicken and its listing as a threatened species. They also want to make it clear what it could mean for the Kansas economy if the species is listed as endangered.
Sipes sees stiffer regulations for western Kansas farmers and ranchers if such a listing happened.
“We want to make sure it doesn’t get worse,” he said.
Last summer, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit arguing the prairie chicken’s threatened status is insufficient to save it from extinction. The groups’ suit lists the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as defendants.
Meanwhile, last spring, Oklahoma’s attorney general, along with the attorneys general of North Dakota and Kansas, filed a lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the federal agency improperly reclassified the lesser prairie chicken.
“There are multiple lawsuits,” said Mike Irvin, Kansas Farm Bureau legislative counsel.
With that in mind, Irvin said farm and rancher members wanted to “protect the back end.”
If federal judges side with the environmental groups, the impact to the western Kansas farm economy could be devastating, he said. In October, Kansas Farm Bureau, along with a coalition of farm bureau’s in the habitat region, filed suit to intervene — opposing the listing of the prairie chicken as endangered and to defend its interests.
Soon after, they started the Stop Fowl Play campaign as a neutral party in an effort to educate about the potential listing. The website — stopfowlplay.com — includes producer testimonies, including from Sipes, about how the listing could impact their operations, as well as the economy of nearby communities.
At present, with the threatened listing, farmers and landowners, oil and gas drillers and other developers are exempt from incidental take if they sign up for an approved U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan. Cropland also is exempt for incidental take.
Yet, the threatened listing is a step below endangered under the Endangered Species Act and allows more flexibility in how the Act protections are implemented.
Irvin said if the prairie chicken is listed as endangered, as environmental groups are hoping, the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers and their rural communities will feel the economic blow. Current exemptions would most likely disappear with an endangered listing. For instance, said Irvin, concerns include whether farmers could even complete conventional farming practices, like applying fertilizer.
“We would lose the flexibilities if it goes to endangered status,” Irvin said.
Some projects on hold
Already, with the threatened status, high mitigation costs under U.S. Fish and Wildlife-approved plans could be halting development, said Sipes.
Sipes, whose family grows certified seed wheat near Manter, has researched the issue for several years as a member of the Kansas Farm Bureau. He fears companies are putting projects, such as oil and gas production, on hold indefinitely. He has heard rumors that three wind farm projects in the lesser prairie chicken region have been halted because of the listing, noting one was in Clark County.
Sipes said next month the government would release a critical habitat area map — which also could have an impact on development and production in that region.
“As much as 66 percent of the critical habitat area is going to be in Kansas — that is where most of the birds are,” he said, later adding, “We have a long battle in our hands.”
Prairie chicken numbers have improved slightly and more will be known in coming months about the population as Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism officials take to helicopters to do an annual spring survey.
But the listing is unique in that such a large area of private land has never come under the scrutiny of the Endangered Species Act, said Heather Whitlaw, a Manhattan field office supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Efforts to save even the bald eagle were largely done on public lands.
Moreover, she said, the Midwest hasn’t had many listings.
“The rest of the country has been dealing with this for 20 years,” she said. “Here in the central part of the country, we have been fortunate. … It’s because of the farmers and ranchers are good stewards. We use our land well, but at some point we are going to have a conflict with a bird that needs large open spaces and the needs of the country for fiber, food energy, industry.
“This is the first time that the service has listed a private land species like this.”
Lessers need large, open, intact grassland with very limited fragmentation, which is becoming harder to find, she said.
“You’ve heard of death by a thousand paper cuts,” she added. “It is not just one thing. It is not just farming. It is not just ranging, oil and gas, wind. We just keep putting more and more stuff on the landscape and chopping things up in smaller and smaller pieces.”
Drought, too, as had a big influence on prairie chicken populations, Whitlaw said.
She said the service is working with landowners in the region affected to help make sure they can continue “producing a lot of the nation’s energy.”
There are operational changes for the industry as a result of the listing, she said. But conservation efforts have already made a difference.
“The message is that we have had and do have successes,” Whitlaw said, noting some landowners are already receiving funds from their efforts through one of the plans. “There is continued industry development. We have a lot of interested people who want to find solutions on these things.”
If listed as endangered, a new set of regulations would apply, she said.
“There is nothing in the endangered species act that says you can’t plant wheat, run cattle, irrigate corn,” she said. “What is prohibited in the act under federal law is the take of a protected species.”
Nevertheless, it is all talk at this point, she said, adding it is now up to the courts to decide what should be done with the prairie chicken. It could be years before any decision is made.
“They are correct, that is one likely outcome,” she said of KFB’s concerns if listed endangered. “But there are other potentially and more likely outcomes, too. It’s all in the air — with a lot of decision points along the way.”
The Kansas Farm Bureau is planning several meetings across the prairie chicken region this week, Irvin said.
“Our goal is to bring awareness, education,” said Irvin, adding there are other potential endangered species listings that are on the radar for Kansas, as well.
“We are trying to bring awareness for everyone.”