By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Mike Hayden has no qualms about accepting the recommendation to forego adding the lesser prairie chicken to the state's endangered species list.

That doesn't mean they don't bear watching, however.

And closely at that.

Hayden, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, acknowledged that he will accept the recommendation of the state's threatened and endangered species committee on the lesser prairie chicken. That committee, on a split vote, recommended the bird's status remain the same, even though there's considerable concern about the well-being of the species.

"We're not going to list it as a state threatened species," Hayden said.

That's because Kansas -- unlike Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico -- is in the enviable position of dealing with an increasing lesser prairie chicken population.

"We're the only state where the population is increasing," he said. Currently, Kansas has slightly more than half the entire population of the birds, and most of that in the southwest quarter of the state.

He lays that population success, at least in Kansas, squarely at the feet of the popular Conservation Reserve Program.

And that's where the concern comes in, for Kansas.

"CRP is being busted out," Hayden said. "More and more, CRP ground is going back into production agriculture."

As those grasslands, idled under a federal program that pays farmers to take the land out of production, are broken out, habitat losses could affect lesser prairie chicken populations.

A lack of adequate habitat is considered to be one of, if not the most significant, factor affecting prairie chicken populations.

Already, a massive number of CRP land has gone out of the program. How much has been broken out and brought back into production is uncertain. High grain prices in recent years and an apparent unwillingness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enroll land back into the program, served as an incentive for some farmers to start growing crops that had contained grasses.

All that changed in July, when the USDA announced it would be conducting another signup for the program, accepting about 4.5 million acres nationwide back into the program.

In 2009, contracts covering more than 331,000 acres of CRP in Kansas expired, with only 6,264 acres accepted back in. This year, that amount will nearly double to 614,539 acres.

Over the next two years, more than a million acres in Kansas will expire, and it's not known how much, if any, will be brought back into the program.

Nationally, 2.7 million acres expired last year and another 4.5 million will expire this year.

Under the enrollment program that ends today, special priority areas -- one of which covers the area inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken -- are in Kansas. In those spots, eligibility for the program is automatic.

Hayden hopes plenty of the land in the prairie chicken areas are offered up and accepted back into the program.

"Some of those are going to be re-enrolled," he said, "and we hope a lot."

But if farmers don't offer the land or too much is offered, some could be left out.

"Right now, we feel the chicken is not threatened," he said. "But we can't say that five years from now because we don't know what CRP is going to do."