TOPEKA - Kansas will join a lawsuit against the federal agency that's listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, Gov. Sam Brownback announced Friday, saying the designation isn't necessary to rebuild the bird's population.
Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit last week against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the agency's process in considering the listing. Brownback said Kansas expects to enter the lawsuit next week and again said the service's action is an "overreach" by the federal government that will harm the Kansas economy and intrude into residents' daily lives.
Brownback and state wildlife Secretary Robin Jennison said the action isn't necessary because the five states with lesser prairie chicken habitats - Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas - worked for several years with the federal agency on a conservation plan. The federal agency praised that plan in announcing the listing Thursday.
Kansas officials said they fear the federal agency will use its authority to impose new restrictions on farming, ranching, oil, natural gas and wind-energy production in areas where the lesser prairie chicken roams. But Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said state officials are overreacting and called their response to the listing "absurd."
Because the federal agency hasn't published the rule associated with the listing yet, Jennison acknowledged that state officials don't yet know all the full implications. But when reporters pressed him about whether federal oversight might not turn out to be as strict as state officials fear, Jennison said, "It will."
"It's the declaration of 'threatened.' That's the line that we did not want them to come across," Brownback said. "They went ahead and did it."
Brownback stopped short of endorsing a bill passed by the state Senate declaring the federal government has no authority to manage prairie chickens within Kansas and making it a felony for a federal employee to enforce a federal law, rule or treaty on the birds.
The federal agency declined to comment because of Oklahoma's lawsuit. But in Thursday's announcement, agency Director Don Ashe announced said it would impose an extraordinary rule to recognize "significant" efforts by the states and landowners, allowing the states to manage conservation efforts. Ashe said listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened instead of endangered would allow for more flexibility.
The federal agency said there were fewer than 18,000 lesser prairie chickens across the five states in 2013, down almost 50 percent from 2012. State officials contend the biggest reason is drought, and Jennison said prairie chicken numbers will increase when Kansas returns to "a normal weather pattern."
"Our scientists are as good as their scientists, and our scientists understand Kansas much better than theirs do," Jennison said.
But Klataske said the listing will still permit the states to manage conservation efforts. Their joint plan is designed to boost the lesser prairie chicken's population to 67,000.
He accused Brownback and Jennison of "grandstanding."
"You've got to create an imaginary dragon and then declare that you're going to go slay it," Klataske said. "This is a Chicken Little declaration or cry that the sky is going to fall."
Klataske also said the federal agency should retain oversight because Kansas has made plans to boost black-tailed prairie dog and black-footed ferret numbers, but his group sees the follow through as lacking.
"The state of Kansas currently has no credibility when it comes to dealing with threatened or endangered species," Klataske said.