By MIKE CORN
OAKLEY -- Anti-prairie dog forces have convinced Logan County and Oakley school district to withdraw permission for "celebratory" activities to herald the 30-year anniversary of the rediscovery of the endangered black-footed ferret.
The Oakley school district withdrew its permission for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct two assemblies that had been scheduled next week.
The Logan County Commission, after being presented with a petition signed by anti-prairie dog forces, withdrew the fair board's decision allowing FWS to conduct an open house that afternoon in the county-owned 4-H building.
The agency has since rescheduled the open house to the upstairs conference room at Mitten Truck Stop. The event will be from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
When he announced the event, FWS wildlife biologist Dan Mulhern was upbeat about the meeting.
"We're hoping this will be real positive," he said, "celebratory in nature."
Instead, it has become mired in its own controversy.
Oakley USD 274 Superintendent Bill Steiner said the controversy was behind the decision to cancel the two school assemblies that had been scheduled.
"I basically had some people who didn't want to get into the middle of that right now," he said of the reason for canceling the two events.
He said "concerned citizens" broached the issue with the district.
"We didn't want to get into the middle of it -- as a school," Steiner said. "The controversy going on out here, we just wanted to stay out of that."
Students would have learned about the history of the endangered black-footed ferrets, 24 of which were first reintroduced at two Logan County locations in December 2007.
Subsequent releases have been made and the animals have established what might be a self-sustaining population, although additional releases have been made. The two sites previously have been described as the most important reintroduction site in the nation.
But the reintroduction has been met with resistance, from prairie dog opponents and the Logan County Commission, which has sought to poison prairie dogs on the Haverfield-Barnhardt complex in southwest Logan County.
Logan County has appealed a district judge's decision turning aside the county's request to poison prairie dogs on the 10,000-acre ranch.
That appeal is pending before the Kansas Court of Appeals, although no date has been set
The lawsuit and subsequent appeal, was cited by Logan County Commission Chairman Nick Scott as part of the reason for refusing the let FWS use the 4-H building for the open house.
"We had a bunch of people come in the meeting the other day," Scott said of how the issue developed.
Scott said commissioners were presented with a petition -- bearing the names of six or eight people -- objecting to the building's use.
Although Scott said the commissioners turned the issue over to the fair board, whose president was attending, he later said the three commissioners made the decision to revoke the use.
Scott said he understands why the objection was made.
"I think if it is against the county, we should," he said of refusing to rent the building to a group that is involved in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, however, doesn't involve either the Nature Conservancy, one reintroduction site and host of the open house, or the wildlife agency.
Instead, it's between Logan County and Larry and Bette Haverfield and Gordon and Martha Barnhardt, owners of the other site where ferrets have been reintroduced.
Scott, however, said the wildlife agency has refused to cooperate with the county on controlling prairie dogs.
"I don't have a damn thing against ferrets," he said. "I do have a thing against them not letting us control the prairie dogs.
"I'm getting awful tired of it. I'm tired of us getting pushed around."
That's part of why the lawsuit is pending and the decision was made on the building.
"I'm not just being an ass**** on this," Scott said. "Let's get some respect. It's been five years on this thing. Do we need to let go 50 years?"
For Rob Manes, director of the Kansas Nature Conservancy, it's an unfortunate turn of events, and a lost educational opportunity for students, who would have been able to see a live ferret.
"I think it's a very positive thing," Manes said of the celebration, which will detail the history of the rediscovery. "I'm glad we're still going to do it."