By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

At the urging of leading birdwatching groups in Kansas, the state's wildlife agency has determined that the lesser prairie chicken warrants further review as an endangered species.

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Secretary Mike Hayden concurred with the advisory committee's findings, setting the stage for what likely will be a protracted process.

Just because the group determined that a review was warranted does not mean that it will ultimately be included on the state's threatened or endangered species list, according to Ed Miller, KDWP's endangered species coordinator.

In fact, there's a possibility the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could pre-empt the state's decision-making process and move ahead with listing the bird on the federal list. FWS late last year abruptly moved the status of the bird higher, a step away from listing it as endangered.

"We determined there was enough information to warrant a full review of the species," Miller said.

KDWP was asked to include the lesser prairie chicken by the Kansas Ornithological Society and six Kansas Audubon societies.

Kansas has two species of prairie chickens, the greater and the lesser. Lesser prairie chickens are generally in an area of southwest and west-central Kansas, while greater prairie chickens are best known in the Flint Hills.

The lesser prairie chicken's range is restricted to five states -- Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

Miller said KDWP did not agree to an emergency listing of the prairie chicken, requested by the petitioners, but said the process would be only marginally quicker.

"It's not a fast process," Miller said of the review that will follow. "It's going to be probably a year before a final recommendation is done."

Two primary issues were behind the decision to proceed with the review, Miller said:

* The threat of significant loss of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. By 2012, contracts covering nearly 2 million acres of Kansas land enrolled in CRP are scheduled to expire and it's not yet known how much might be allowed back into the program.

* Energy development of wind farms and power lines necessary to carry the electricity generated by wind farms. Prairie chickens are known to avoid tall structures, thinking the tall structures might serve as a lookout spot for raptors.

The intrusion of trees in grasslands, while not identified in the petition seeking review, was cited by the advisory committee that urged further investigation.

Not yet tipping his hand on where he might fall in terms of what he thinks should be done, Miller said he's hopeful that some changes can be made through incentives, such as where wind farms are located or the eradication of trees in pastures.

The lesser prairie chicken in Kansas is in relatively good shape, with nearly half of the nation's entire population located here. Other states, however, are struggling.

The lesser prairie chicken population in Kansas, Miller said, is somewhere between 17,500 and 28,000 birds, according to estimates supplied by wildlife biologist Randy Rodgers.

In 2006, those numbers were slightly higher -- somewhere between 19,700 and 31,000 -- but drought might have played a role in the reduction.

"If those numbers are right, it looks like the numbers are pretty stable or increasing since the 1970s," Miller said.

The idea of listing the prairie chicken as an endangered species is a new frontier for KDWP.

"We've never had a game species before," he said.

In fact, said Chris Tymeson, legal counsel for KDWP, they've never had a petition outside the five-year review period.

If listed in Kansas, Miller said hunting of the lesser prairie chicken would be halted.