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Threatened chicken

Last week's move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act should not have come as a surprise. The grouse's natural habitat in native grasslands and prairies has been reduced an estimated 84 percent. Last year, the bird's population dropped by almost half from the year before to a record low 17,616.

"The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits," said Dan Ashe, director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Knowing the threats the lesser prairie chicken faces remain and are expected to remain in the future, it is likely the bird will move to the endangered list at some point. As such, labeling it threatened was justified in the federal bureaucracy's line of thinking.

That thinking -- and the threatened label, was greeted with disappointment by virtually everybody at the state and local level already heavily invested in the bird's survival.

"That is bad news," said Jim Pitman with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

"This wasn't the decision we hoped to hear," said KDWPT Secretary Robin Jennison.

"This is an overreach on the part of the federal government," said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, "and I am concerned about the effect this designation will have on Kansans and the Kansas economy."

"We will fight to undo this foolish and overly prescriptive rule," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

"The Obama administration is threatening the private property rights of farmers and ranchers, as well as threatening needed energy production," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

We get the point. Nobody likes the listing.

But did anybody actually read what USFWS recommended?

"In recognition of the significant and ongoing efforts of states and landowners to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken, this unprecedented use of a special 4(d) rule will allow the five range states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development and utility line maintenance that are covered under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' (WAFWA) range-wide conservation plan. This range-wide conservation plan was developed by state wildlife agency experts in 2013 with input from a wide variety of stakeholders. The special rule also establishes that conservation practices carried out through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service's Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and through ongoing normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land are all in compliance with the ESA and not subject to further regulation."

The federal government not only recognizes what the various entities in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas -- where the lesser prairie chicken resides -- have developed to help protect the species, USFWS very specifically states the programs in place are what is needed.

How is that overreach? How are farmers and ranchers threatened if they continue doing what they voluntarily signed up for? If utilities and oil and gas companies aren't subject to any additional requirements, how can energy production be affected?

For a change, the federal government was using common sense and letting the people and organizations closest to the problem have the authority to solve it. Even the role of ongoing drought was acknowledged. It strikes us the politicians and bureaucrats so quick to attack the ruling should have been thanking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services instead.

The lesser prairie chicken should be listed as threatened. Without mitigation, this particular bird likely would become endangered and then extinct. State and local stakeholders have the opportunity to ensure that doesn't happen. They should be grateful, not threatening legal or congressional action.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net