Brownback offers a prairie chicken plan


By Fred Mann

By Fred Mann

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday that the federal government is using the wrong approach to deal with the declining population of the lesser prairie chicken, one that imposes risks to the state's agriculture and energy industries.

Use of existing conservation plans such as the voluntary Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program should have been considered before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as "threatened" in March, Brownback said.

He said he has asked the service and U.S. Department of Agriculture in a letter to suspend all regulatory actions involved with the listing until those plans have been considered.

"There's a way of doing this," he said during a news conference at the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita. "It isn't a regulatory approach. It's a market-based approach, and we've used it for a long time in the Conservation Reserve Program and the EQIP program."

Under the CRP, the federal government pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production and plant species that will improve its environmental health and quality. The EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to improve water and air quality, conserve water, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation or improve or create wildlife habitat.

The fish and wildlife service has said the listing was required because of a nearly 50 percent drop in the lesser prairie chicken population — to fewer than 18,000 birds — in a five-state area in the last year. The other states are Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Brownback said he sent a letter Tuesday to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack challenging the fish and wildlife service to review the CRP and EQIP plans "to show good faith that species recovery is the mission."

He also asked that they recognize the significance of drought as a reason for the bird's declining population.

History shows droughts have caused fluctuations in those populations since the 1950s, Brownback said.

"When the drought ends, the population will rebound," he said.

Kansas has 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. Brownback said Kansas will ask the court for an injunction giving Kansans more time to consider all their options. Kansas residents were supposed to decide last month whether to participate in conservation efforts.

Brownback said CRP lands have been cut by 25 percent since 2008, while they should be expanded. Most land being removed from the CRP is in prairie chicken habitat, he said.

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, who has had differences with Brownback over his criticism of the listing, said he liked the governor's call to increase the amount of CRP land because it would help reverse a loss of habitat for the bird.

Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey, who appeared in Wichita with Brownback, said the CRP is a tool that can be used to create habitat for the lesser prairie chicken.

"When we look at the reduction of CRP acres, and at same time see the federal government stepping in and increasing regulations to deal with an issue that the voluntary program could be addressing just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to us," she said.

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