By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

A planned 345,000-volt power line stretching from Spearville to Hays will pass right between two courtship areas for the all-but-endangered lesser prairie chicken.

The areas, known as leks, are located south of Nekoma in Rush County.

"This power line is going to go smack right over them," said Randy Rodgers, a wildlife biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and project leader on lesser prairie chickens.

The grassland birds are especially sensitive to tall objects, even trees, because they see them as roosts for raptors and avoid the area.

Rodgers passed along the information to ITC Great Plains, the company developing the project.

While the discovery caught the company off guard, spokeswoman Kimberly Svaty said ITC has since talked with Rodgers.

"We are working very closely with fish and wildlife," Svaty said.

While Rodgers knows of at least four different lesser prairie chicken leks in Rush County, the one about 5 miles south of Nekoma has split into two distinct sites. The line would run right between them, he said.

"There's a real nice batch of chickens there," he said.

Scott Seltman, a Larned birder who used to live in the area and still owns land near the Nekoma flock, is concerned.

"There's no question that lek is pretty well doomed," he said.

It's a site that has attracted perhaps 500 birders over the past four years, from all over the U.S. and foreign countries. It's a popular site because of its accessibility, Seltman said.

"It's probably the second highest tourist stop behind the barbed wire museum, and nobody knows anything about it," he said.

Despite that, Seltman, perhaps one of the state's most avid birders, won't be protesting the line.

"It's a very complex issue," he said. "There's social issues too. A lot of family and friends and neighbors own land right there."

While the numbers in the prairie chicken flock affected by the line aren't big, Rodgers said it is perhaps the state's northeastern-most flock of the birds.

Lesser prairie chickens differ from its larger relative, the greater prairie chicken. While they generally don't inhabit the same territory, there are cross-over zones in west-central Kansas.

Southwest Kansas is a relative stronghold for the lesser prairie chicken, while the greater is more common to northwest and northeast Kansas. The lesser also can be found in western Oklahoma, northwest Texas, eastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado.

Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the status of the lesser prairie chicken in terms of its eligibility for listing as an endangered species. Today, it is just one step away from being put on the list.

While Kansas is a stronghold for the birds, home to about half of the lesser prairie chickens in the world, according to Rodgers, other states aren't as well off.

"A listing maybe warranted," KDWP Secretary Mike Hayden said recently. "Not because of Kansas but because of other state's situations."

While Rodgers said the agency was contacted about any prairie chicken populations, the exact route of the line wasn't known at that time.

"I'm going to have to contact these folks to see if they're aware of them," he said of ITC.

Rodgers did just that, sending an e-mail last week to the engineer who did the environmental assessment for the project.

"I don't know if they would re-route for a lek anyway," Rodgers said of what the situation might mean.

While a lek generally attracts males, hens generally nest within a mile of the area.

"I do think it's a bad situation when power lines are going right through where the prairie chickens are," Rodgers said.

Ultimately, he said, the tall poles could preclude the prairie chickens from using habitat with a quarter of a mile. The loss of habitat is the primary reason for the over decline in the population of the bird.

But with birds, Rodgers said, it's uncertain what will happen.

That's why he can't say with any certainty that a power line might disrupt the birds' nesting pattern or even cause the birds to disappear.

"Is it going to good for them?" he asked. "We can say that with some certainty, no."