By MIKE CORN
OAKLEY -- When the state's wildlife commission met recently in Oakley, its members toured the 16,800-acre Smoky Valley Ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy.
In doing so, the group snubbed the nearby Haverfield-Barnhardt complex -- the state's most successful and controversial -- black-footed ferret reintroduction site.
The snubbing came about because landowners stopped an 11th-hour poisoning campaign by the Logan County Commission, whose poisoner of choice was armed with a permit issued by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
KDWP hasn't objected to the temporary restraining order that was filed in the case and it essentially has stood by as the county and landowners Larry Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt have slugged it out in court over the poisoning of prairie dogs.
The wildlife commission declined the invitation to tour the 10,000-acre Haverfield-Barnhardt complex on the advice of KDWP legal counsel Chris Tymeson who called it inappropriate.
"Because we're in litigation," Tymeson said of the reason why he advised against the tour.
KDWP, however, had nothing to say when Logan County sought to poison as much as a half-mile back from the boundary lines on the Haverfield-Barnhardt complex, a request a Shawnee County judge denied.
KDWP even went so far as to sit in the audience when Logan County commissioners asked for the case to be transferred from Shawnee County to Logan County.
"We did not have a position on that," Tymeson said of the venue request.
Commission member Doug Sebelius, a Norton attorney, said he's not looked into the specifics of the case, relying on Tymeson's advice instead.
But he agreed that it generally would not be appropriate to take the tour.
Sebelius, however, said he's not opposed to the idea of personally touring the area, gaining input on both sides of the controversy, most of which involve prairie dogs.
Bottom line, he said, it's time for the Kansas Legislature to review a more than 100-year-old law that mandates the eradication of prairie dogs.
Instead, he said, that decision-making authority should fall to KDWP, which has the technical expertise to determine where poisons should be used.
He also thinks there should be a change in the process being used in cases involving endangered species.
"We've got the regulatory scheme in place but haven't used it," Sebelius said of KDWP.
KDWP Secretary Mike Hayden also supports a change in the state's law affecting prairie dogs, shifting that task to the wildlife agency rather than to county commissions.
"If I were a county commissioner, I don't think I would want to make land use decisions like that," Sebelius said of the eradication measures taken by Logan County.
There's also the threat, he noted, that the black-tailed prairie dog could be listed as endangered with such a law in place without any biological consideration being used.
Audubon of Kansas executive director Ron Klataske said he thinks the lawsuit is simply an excuse to get around the issue.
"It's a non-issue," he said of the lawsuit.
Klataske publicly invited commissioners to tour the area, echoing an earlier invitation by Haverfield and Barnhardt.
He said it's unfortunate, primarily because it keeps the commission from being informed about the issues involving prairie dogs.
Haverfield took a more conciliatory tone, focusing instead on conditions at the ranch.
He said about 7,500 acres of land out of 10,000 have prairie dogs, but at lower densities, most likely about 85 percent what they were in 2006 when the area was surveyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Haverfield said Charles Lee, the wildlife damage coordinator at Kansas State University and a frequent poisoner of prairie dogs in Logan County, estimated the complex had about 7,100 acres.
"Something's happened that prairie dogs are on a decline here on us," Haverfield said. "I don't know what happened, whether the predators are getting a better grip."