Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced Tuesday that he is pushing the federal government to assume some costs for protecting the lesser prairie chicken by expanding incentives for farmers to enroll their land in a longstanding conservation program.
Brownback also said Kansas will return to federal court this week to seek additional time for farmers, ranchers, and oil and natural gas producers to respond to the federal government's decision in March to list the bird as threatened. Kansas residents were supposed to decide last month whether to participate in conservation efforts. They faced restrictions and federal fees to continue business activities in areas with prairie chicken habitats.
The Republican governor criticized the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a regulatory overreach by the federal government that threatens the state's economy. He scheduled a news conference Tuesday in Wichita to discuss new actions by the state and outlined them in a Statehouse briefing for The Associated Press beforehand.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said the listing is justified by a steep decline in the bird's numbers in recent years. The five states affected — Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas — had fewer than 18,000 in 2013, down almost 50 percent from 2012.
Brownback released a letter dated Monday to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pursue "enhanced incentives" for farmers to enroll land in the agency's Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to cultivate. Brownback said doing so would expand lesser prairie chicken habitats; with such a move, the federal government also would pay farmers to help protect the bird, rather than the other way around.
"If they're upset about loss of habitat, the federal government has a fabulous tool that is available and that they've been cutting back on," Brownback said during the Statehouse briefing. "Instead, they're putting the costs on the private landowner and energy industry."
Federal farm legislation enacted earlier this year cut the cap on acres in the conservation program by 25 percent, to 24 million from 32 million. Kansas acreage in the program has decline by 28 percent since 2008, to less than 2.4 million. Conservationists have attributed the national decline to rising commodity prices.
A new Kansas law that took effect last month declared that the federal government has no authority to regulate lesser prairie chickens inside the state and allows the attorney general or county prosecutors to sue to block federal conservation efforts. Kansas also joined Oklahoma, Nebraska and North Dakota in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa over the process leading to the lesser prairie chicken's listing at threatened.
Brownback said the plaintiffs in that case will file a new version of the lawsuit this week, seeking more time for farmers, ranchers and energy producers to respond to the prairie chicken listing.
J. Michael Vess, chairman and managing owner of the Vess Oil Corp., in Wichita, said his company recently abandoned three western Kansas sites where it was ready to put up drilling rigs and has backed away from exploring 10 to 15 sites because of the listing.
"We just don't see how we can drill in western Kansas right now if our locations are in the designated habitat areas," he said in an interview before Brownback's news conference.