Hunting could continue in shift allowing a new comment period
By MIKE CORN
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week reopened the comment period -- until June 20 -- on a proposal to classify the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.
But the agency also announced a new rule likely to change the focus of the process dramatically -- perhaps even enough to send utility companies and oil and gas operators racing to the signup table to partner with a five-state coalition developing a plan designed to conserve the bird.
The proposal, however, drew a stinging response from the Center for Biological Diversity.
"We're disappointed the service is using a rule that is supposed to enhance wildlife conservation to lock the lesser prairie chicken into small areas of habitat, preclude their recovery, and give blanket approval to industrial activities that are pushing them to extinction," said Jay Lininger, representing the Center for Biological Diversity.
His complaint stems from a section known as a 4(d) provision that offers protection from "incidental take" of the birds associated with a "comprehensive conservation program developed" in coordination with a state fish and wildlife "agency or agencies."
That's an apparent nod to the fish and wildlife agencies from the five states -- Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas -- with lesser prairie chickens that have submitted a draft copy of their conservation plan, hoping it will keep the federal agency from declaring the bird as threatened.
The federal wildlife agency has been working in concert with the five states in developing the plan, even providing much of the money to put it together.
Money for conservation programs under the five-state plan would come from oil and gas developers, as well as wind and electric utilities, which apparently would receive amnesty for killing birds if it happens under a plan developed in coordination with a state agency.
The 4(d) rule only would be implemented in the event the lesser prairie chicken is deemed a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
If that happens, there's a provision that might allow the continued hunting of lesser prairie chickens, "in the course of state-managed hunting programs for the lesser prairie chicken or incidental to legal hunting activities directed at greater prairie chickens."
Specifically, the 4(d) rule pointed to 12 counties in Kansas where the two species overlap.
"Limited mortality of lesser prairie chickens occurs as a result of hunting activities directed at greater prairie chickens," the announcement in Monday's Federal Register states.
While Jim Pittman, the small game coordinator for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, hasn't had the chance to read the seven-page announcement, he's been pushing for an exemption for hunting.
He's argued hunting actually helps the bird's status because it results in money to study and preserve the species and it draws attention of hunters and landowners.
Hunters don't kill many prairie chickens -- greater or lesser -- in the course of the state's fairly liberal hunting seasons.
All of those 12 counties are west of Hays where both species of prairie chickens are found, the result of a boost in land enrolled in the popular Conservation Reserve Program, taking land out of production and putting it into grass.
Greater prairie chickens are slightly larger and, except for the 12 counties where the two interact, occupy generally different parts of the state.
Greater chickens are best known to inhabit the Flint Hills, the Smoky Hill region of north-central Kansas and northwest Kansas.
Typically, the lesser prairie chicken inhabits southwest Kansas, and the Red Hills of south-central Kansas, but has been advancing north in northwest Kansas as CRP acres have increased.
The boost in CRP has brought the birds together in a zone 20 to 40 miles wide, even to the point of breeding with one another to create hybrids.
In its posting, FWS is seeking information on state management plans related to hunting regulations to "avoid or minimize the risk of lesser prairie chicken mortality from hunting for greater prairie chickens."
The agency also said it's looking at encouraging landowners who remove land from CRP to continue managing for lesser prairie chickens.
* Comments can be made online at www.regulations.gov, and search for docket number FWS-R2-ES-2012-0071. A direct link to the docket can be found at goo.gl/WE6bb.