Topeka Federal officials could wind up behind bars if they tried to enforce federal laws in Kansas protecting the Lesser Prairie Chicken, under a bill approved by a state Senate committee on Friday.
Senate Bill 276 says any federal law to protect the endangered bird would be null and void and unenforceable in Kansas.
According to the bill, if a United States government official tried to enforce federal law regulating either the Greater or Lesser Prairie Chicken, their habitats or farming practices related to those species, that official could face a severity level 10, non-person felony.
While that carries a presumptive sentence of probation, a fiscal note on the bill to legislators says that the Kansas Sentencing Commission said the legislation "could result in prison admission and bed space needs when probationers violate their conditions and are revoked to prison."
The bill was supported by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who said it would probably prompt a legal battle that pitted state rights against federal law.
The bill is in response to the possibility that by April the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. According to Fish and Wildlife, the historical range of the Lesser Prairie Chickens has been reduced by 84 percent because of development and conversion of native grassland to agriculture. And researchers have estimated the Lesser Prairie Chicken population has declined 50 percent in the past year.
But listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species would have a devastating impact on the western Kansas economy, according to some agriculture and energy interests.
For example, mitigation costs would double the price of constructing electric transmission lines, said Bruce Graham, chief executive officer of the Kansas Electric Cooperatives Inc.
One day before the Senate committee recommended approval of the measure, Gov. Sam Brownback warned that the state would take legal action if the Fish and Wildlife listed the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species.
"While I am hopeful that you will agree that the criteria for listing are not satisfied here, Kansas stands ready to make the case in judicial review proceedings to oppose and challenge any listing," Brownback said in a letter to Fish and Wildlife Director Don Ashe.
State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, voted against the bill in the Senate committee, saying that wildlife officials in Kansas and four other states are working well with Fish and Wildlife to devise a voluntary plan, and such a bill would make it appear that Kansas is not negotiating in good faith.
She also said legislators shouldn't vote on the bill until they have an official estimate on how much the measure will cost in litigation expenses.