By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

To compensate for the likely destruction of two Rush County lesser prairie chicken leks, power line builder ITC Great Plains will pay to clear cedar trees from 1,280 acres.

Many of the details surrounding the project are still being worked out, including the exact location and hiring a contractor to do the work, according to Murray Laubhan, chief of environmental services for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

ITC Great Plains will hire the contractor directly to do the work, he said.

ITC spokesman Joe Kirik again declined to offer any details about the mitigation effort.

"I can't respond to that," Kirik said Thursday when asked if the agreement called for the clearing of cedar trees.

The mitigation agreement that has been preliminarily hammered out is in response to the siting of a 345,000 volt power line from Spearville to Hays.

The line will pass through Rush County, passing almost directly between two known lesser prairie chicken leks south of Nekoma.

Prairie chickens are known to avoid structures because they can serve as a roost for raptors. Generally speaking, the taller the structure -- in this case H-shaped towers that will support the lines carrying the electricity -- the greater the effect on the birds.

ITC Great Plains, the Kansas subsidiary of a Michigan firm, learned about the presence of the prairie chickens late in the permitting process and was unable to find an alternate route to bypass the birds and not interfere with other activities.

The Kansas Corporation Commission last year approved the construction of the power line, but instructed ITC to continue to work with KDWP to mitigate the damage to the lesser prairie chickens.

While the project is generally considered mitigation, Laubhan said the lesser prairie chicken is not on either the state or federal endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, is poised to list the birds and KDWP is currently considering such a move.

As a result, KDWP wields a much smaller hammer in forcing remedial action.

"They are trying to do things that are environmentally right," Laubhan said.

That's why the agreement hammered out calls for the clearing of cedar trees from 1,280 acres of pasture.

The move is expected to generally benefit grassland birds, which include prairie chickens.

Laubhan said it's not likely the pastures to be cleared will be in Rush County, given the habitat is already so broken up. Prairie chickens like big blocks of prairie.

In the case of mitigation, Laubhan said KDWP hopes to strike an agreement that has long-lasting effects.

Typically, that means acquiring land or easements or improving habitat, he said.

The clearing of cedar trees is considered a long-lasting improvement, turning back perhaps decades of tree encroachment.

"We know how to kill cedar trees," Laubhan said, "and it is long lived."

Because the contracts to do the work haven't been signed, it's uncertain what the cost of the project will be.

It won't be cheap, however.

Pastures with high rates of infestation, he said, cost about $300 an acre to clear. As the infestation rate declines, so does the cost of removal.

"It's not punitive," Laubhan said of the cost of the project, "and it lasts a long time."