By MIKE CORN
As expected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially extended the deadline for making a decision on adding the lesser prairie chicken to the endangered species list.
In doing so, however, the federal wildlife agency has reopened -- for an additional 30 days -- the comment period.
The extension, published in Monday's Federal Register, extends the comment period to Aug. 8.
It will be the third comment period since FWS on Dec. 11 proposed listing the bird as a threatened species, primarily as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation due to conversion of grasslands to agricultural uses and wind and oil and gas production.
While FWS officially claims the extension is a result of disagreement about the "sufficiency and accuracy of the data relating to the listing proposal," the agency first announced the decision in letters to a contingent of congressional members, including Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
The agency, however, couched its decision by suggesting it was doing so due to "substantial scientific disagreement."
It's illegal for FWS to agree to the extension strictly as a result of politics.
The letter from FWS Director Dan Ashe also gave an apparent nod to a five-state plan being proposed that would keep the bird off the list.
"We strongly support the efforts to develop a rangewide conservation plan and are working closely with the states to refine the plan," Ashe wrote in his letter.
That voluntary plan would be administered by state wildlife agencies in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico on behalf of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a consortium of 20 state wildlife agencies and three Canadian provinces.
The five-state plan is still in something of a state of flux as a result of the extension, said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA's grassland coordinator. The states will meet Monday with the FWS to work out details of when the final version must be filed.
"As for the extension of the final decision," he said, "this extension will allow the states to finalize the plan and implement it. While the states believe the LPC is not warranted for listing at this point in time, it does need a coordinated comprehensive conservation effort as identified in the range-wide plan being developed by the states."
State wildlife agencies already are on record against listing the bird, and would receive about 15 percent of the cost of the conservation plan to supervise its completion.
Money to pay for the conservation projects would come from oil and gas interests and electric utilities. Paying the money also is voluntary.
So far, nearly 25,000 comments have been submitted, most of them as bulk comments either objecting to the listing because of its effect on oil and gas exploration or favoring the listing because prairie chicken populations have declined precipitously.
A mix of the comments have originated from Kansas, which has the greatest number of birds in the five-state area.
Comments on the proposal can be submitted online at www.regulations.gov. The docket number is FWS-R2-ES-2012-0071.