By MIKE CORN
Just 74 days remain before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide what action it will take on the lesser prairie chicken.
But first they have to wade through hundreds of pages of new documents, and a growing chorus of requests for either another public hearing or an extension of the deadline to decide if the bird will be added to the endangered species list.
Not surprisingly, many of the documents -- and the extension requests -- came from energy developers who continue to oppose the listing. Not everyone is opposed, however, as several environmental groups urged FWS to move ahead with the listing.
The agency also is awash with documents from the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition, a loosely-knit consortium that includes 32 counties in western Kansas, specifically in the region occupied by the bird.
KNRC continued its quest for what it calls coordination -- a government-to-government meeting to develop and implement plans, in this case the conservation of the lesser prairie chicken.
While FWS disputes the notion it is required by federal law to coordinate with the counties, both the FWS and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism have met privately with the group's four-person executive committee.
But sympathetic Kansas legislators have gone on record to call for a public hearing before a decision is made.
The request was made by Sens. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, and Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, and Reps. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater.
"We are evaluating the request but have not made a decision," said FWS spokeswoman Lesli Gray.
An extension also is being sought.
Several groups commenting -- while stating their opposition -- are suggesting FWS actually could delay the decision from March 30 to June 11.
FWS already has delayed the listing decision by six months.
There's also a growing chorus of complaints about incomplete or even misleading information from FWS, specifically its endorsement of a five-state conservation plan even though there are a number of versions.
FWS director Dan Ashe endorsed a version produced in September, but it since has been updated, with no mention of a second endorsement.
FWS filed its own copy of the October version of the five-state plan -- put together by wildlife agencies from Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas -- during the latest comment period.
Costs associated with the five-state plan are raising concerns. The American Wind Energy Association said a wind turbine in a key habitat area could add as much as $1.15 million to the cost.
Even the five-state group filed comments urging changes, and asking FWS to think drought when it looks at survey numbers.
But Keith Sexson, KDWP&T assistant secretary and a five-state director, also asked FWS to clean up its language offering protection to farmers in the course of routine agricultural activities.
The use of flush bars, he said in a letter, as well as "harvesting a field from the 'inside-out' are not 'routine agricultural activities.' "
Sexson urged FWS to do away with "these non-routine activities from (the) 'routine agricultural activities' provision... ."
The state agencies also asked for clarification on which version of their plan is being endorsed.
The states also sought to soften the blow on the 2013 aerial survey showing a 49 percent decline in prairie chicken numbers from a year earlier.
Defenders of Wildlife, however, expressed surprise the survey wasn't even mentioned in the latest rule.
"The survey results are alarming and significant enough to require an explanation from the service about whether the species warrants listing as "endangered" throughout all or a significant portion of its range," Defenders wrote.
Endangered status is more extreme than threatened.
Both the Texas and New Mexico wildlife agencies sought to blame the drought.
There's also concern the five-state plan is the only one endorsed, and, as a result, others might be shunned, even though from other federal agencies.
Sexson urged the agency to clear up the confusion.