By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The state's leading birdwatching group and six Kansas Audubon chapters are asking the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks for an emergency listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.

The groups contend the pressure on the birds is simply too great, and they need protection now.

But the request also comes with a heavy price tag, only not so much in terms of dollars and cents.

Never before has a species gone through the emergency listing process, and if that protection is offered, it would bring an end to hunting of the birds -- a time-honored season that would strike at the very core of the agency that is being asked to confer the status on the birds.

Hunting would have to stop if the lesser prairie chicken is placed on the state's endangered species list.

"It could not be hunted anymore," said Edwin Miller, coordinator for the state's threatened and endangered species program. "Unless there is some way around that that I don't know about."

The request from the Kansas Ornithological Society comes on the heels of a federal status change by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Late last year, FWS upgraded the status of the bird from a step 8 to a step 2 -- a hair's-breadth away from being included on the federal endangered species list.

Action by the federal agency might slow or halt entirely the state's movement on the emergency listing petition, according to Miller.

In any event, the state's T&E committee will meet later this month to make a recommendation on the lesser prairie chickens for the Oct. 15 meeting of the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting in Sedan.

The commission can accept that recommendation or direct the committee to move ahead with further review, the first step in what most likely will be a lengthy review process.

"There's all kinds of questions on this that need to be worked out and thought through," Miller said. "I don't see anything happening very quickly on this one very soon."

Kansas is in relatively good shape, as far as lesser prairie chickens go, according to the emergency petition filed with KDWP.

Kansas, according to Mark Robbins at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute, has about half of the remaining lesser prairie chicken population.

"Kansas is key to survival," he said. "If Kansas goes under, we're done."

But the birds are confronted with troubles aplenty, he said, including a lack of habitat -- or more accurately, habitat that is scattered so much that it's value is reduced.

That's not to say, however, that Conservation Reserve Program acres -- turning cropland back into grassland -- hasn't been of benefit. It has, but contracts covering much of that land is scheduled to expire, threatening the survival of the birds. By 2012, contracts covering nearly 2 million acres of CRP is scheduled to expire, and it's uncertain how much might be allowed back in to the program, reduced under terms of the 2008 farm bill.

Wind farms and the transmission lines that will carry the power they produce also threaten the population, in part because prairie chickens are known to avoid such areas -- thinking the tall structures might serve as a lookout spot for raptors.

"I'm pro wind," Robbins said, "but we need to make sure they are put in areas that have already been modified."

That's why, in the petition, the group is urging a 5 mile buffer zone around lesser prairie chicken leks, or breeding grounds for the birds.

The petition also wants officials to re-evaluate the use of fencing on state and federal lands and develop educational material to deter private landowners from using fencing or seek funding to help mark fences. Fences cause considerable mortality in lesser prairie chickens.

Miller said the state's endangered species committee, something of a sounding board for the wildlife commission, will meet in September to discuss what its members will recommend. First on the agenda is a report from Hays-based wildlife biologist Randy Rodgers, who keeps close tabs on lesser prairie chicekns.

What that recommendation might be is anyone's guess, or it could be to do nothing pending action by the federal government.

Already, Miller said, there is talk of doing a population viability study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the federal wildlife agency is prepared to take action, that might preclude Kansas from taking action.

Listing of a species as threatened under federal endangered species laws automatically entitles it to protection in Kansas, he said.

This is the first time an emergency request has been made.

"We've never done one of these outside of the five-year review," Miller said, adding that he's been with the department for 20 years.