Kobach urges passage of bill that would exclude Lesser Prairie Chicken from federal protection

? Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Thursday urged legislators to approve a bill that would exclude the Lesser Prairie Chicken from federal protection.

“This is a fight worth fighting,” Kobach told the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Kobach said Senate Bill 276 would likely lead to a legal battle and pit state rights against federal law.

“There is nothing in the Constitution that mentions the federal regulation of species,” Kobach said. He said his testimony was as a former constitutional law professor and attorney who has litigated cases on constitutional questions, and not as secretary of state.

The bill would assert state sovereignty over nonmigratory wildlife, declare null and void any federal law in Kansas on the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and allow state officials to charge federal officials with a felony if a federal official tried to enforce a federal law dealing with the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

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.

“The decline of the Lesser Prairie Chicken sends a signal that native grasslands are in trouble. By taking actions to conserve the species, we can also restore the health of our native grasslands that support local economies and communities in addition to migratory birds and other wildlife,” the agency said.

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.

Mitigation costs would double the price of constructing electric transmission lines, said Bruce Graham, chief executive officer of the Kansas Electric Cooperatives Inc.

It would also limit where wind turbines could be built, officials said.

“If we can pass this bill, many of you would go home heroes,” said Steve Swaffar, representing the Kansas Farm Bureau.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken’s population reportedly dropped by nearly half last year, but some say that was because of drought conditions, and that once the drought ends the bird will rebound.

State wildlife officials in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have proposed enacting a conservation plan in hopes of avoiding a federal listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. But even that would impose significant costs, Graham said.

Kobach said that while state wildlife officials deal with the federal Fish and Wildlife agency, the proposed bill could be seen as Kansas “holding a club in the background.”

Kobach said if the Legislature approved the bill and it ended up being challenged in court, the litigation costs would range from $100,000 to $400,000.

SB 276 would also apply to Greater Prairie Chickens, which are larger than Lesser Prairie Chickens. But Greater Prairie Chickens are much more abundant and are not being considered for federal designation as a threatened species.