By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

OAKLEY -- It wasn't on the agenda, but talk turned to prairie dogs just the same.

That's not a surprise when the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission ventures into Logan County, long a hotbed of controversy surrounding the issue of prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.

Commissioners were asked Thursday about the endangered species status of the animals during a presentation on threatened and endangered species in Kansas.

State officials were quick to point out they have nothing to do with the move.

"It's the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and not our department," said Chris Tymeson, legal counsel for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

KDWP commented on the proposal, he said, and provided information about population estimates.

Mike Mitchener, KDWP's wildlife section chief, told of how preliminary surveys suggest the state's prairie dog population is increasing, and perhaps amounts to 170,000 acres.

"We're far above the goal of what we set for Kansas," Mitchener said of agreements the state set with a prairie dog working group, a consortium of 11 states formed in the wake of an earlier FWS finding that prairie dogs were warranted for inclusion on the endangered species list.

In spite of that finding, they were not listed because other animals had greater needs.

Eventually, prairie dogs were dropped from consideration altogether on the list.

Jill Hanson seized on Mitchener's report, noting prairie dogs are increasing even with a state law that mandates eradication.

Commissioner Gerald Lauber quickly pointed out that KDWP is not in favor of seeing the prairie dog listed as endangered.

And he said there's considerable confusion between the two agencies.

"They are two distinct agencies, one state and one federal," he noted.

Federal wildlife officials have been leading the black-footed ferret reintroduction project in Logan County.

KDWP Secretary Mike Hayden admits the state wildlife agency has stood on the sidelines.

"First off, the big governing factor for us is state law," he said, citing a 104-year-old law that gives townships -- ultimately county commissions -- authority to go onto private land and kill the animals if a landowner won't. The county can then bill the landowner.

That's at the heart of the controversy in Logan County, where a handful of landowners want to keep prairie dogs to ensure a source of food for the ferret, the nation's most endangered mammal.

KDWP might be the state's wildlife agency, Hayden said, but it has little to do with prairie dogs as a result of the eradication law.

"The ferret issue is a federal issue," he said. "So again, the feds trump us when it comes to jurisdiction."

Other than taking a census of the prairie dogs, there's little KDWP can do, he said.

Hayden said his agency tried to get the law changed -- when prairie dogs were candidates for endangered species status -- but that effort failed.

"We think the law is outdated," he acknowledged, "and does not reflect the emerging paradigm. But it's the law. And we will follow it."

Hayden said he hopes the animal isn't listed as endangered.

"It is a species that lives in a number of states," he said. "In Kansas, we don't think it's a species that is disappearing."