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Options for chickens and landowners

Published on -4/11/2014, 10:35 AM

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By Amy Bickel

The Hutchinson News, Kan.

In hopes to prevent the listing, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, as part of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, began working with four other states in the habitat region to craft a range-wide conservation plan for Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.

The plan received endorsement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Jim Pitman, with Kansas Wildlife and Parks, who served as vice-chiar of a six-member working group that wrote the plan.

The plan's goal is to build populations back to 67,000 birds -- which isn't unreasonable, he said.

"We were above 67,000 birds as recently as 2006," he said.

While concerns mount from landowners, businesses and politicians about the impact on the Kansas economy, Pitman stressed that such a listing doesn't mean that development cannot continue in southwest Kansas.

Companies planning projects in the targeted conservation region -- roughly 40 million acres across the five states -- can be covered from incidental take -- accidentally harming or killing a bird -- under the endangered species act by enrolling in the association's range-wide plan or another approved plan.

There is an enrollment fee.

Companies also pay a mitigation fee for habitat disturbed, which is the cost of creating or maintaining similar habitat elsewhere in the region.

Those costs vary, depending on the quality of habitat being taken.

In turn, the fees collected through the range-wide plan will go to farmers, ranchers and landowners to help them implement best management practices to preserve habitat in the targeted region, Pitman said.

Jim Sipes' land is in a 10-mile buffer designated as habitat in the range-wide management plan developed by five state wildlife agencies, including KDWPT.

However, he said, he has never seen a prairie chicken on his family's acreage and is concerned about how the plan could affect southwest Kansas.

He gave input to a stakeholder plan, which is being supported by the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Environmental Defense Fund. The plan, he says, benefits not only wildlife, but farmers, ranchers and the energy industry.

It also isn't as costly, Sipes said.

According to Sipes, the mitigation credit exchange program supported by the stakeholder groups is designed to offset perceived unfavorable development within critical habitat areas with additional more favorable habitat elsewhere. Energy companies would pay landowners to maintain or develop habitat acceptable to the lesser prairie chickens.

The stakeholder plan could be implemented as soon as December, Pitman said.

Meanwhile, there is already some promise for some rebound of the bird by next year. Agencies are counting lesser prairie chicken populations by helicopters this spring and Pitman expects numbers to be similar to last year.

However, he said, late summer rains created better pasture conditions, and he is hoping to see better production this summer and increased populations in spring 2015.

(c)2014 The Hutchinson News

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