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Kansas protest over prairie chicken takes wing

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Posted: May 2, 2014 9:26 PM

Updated: May 2, 2014 9:26 PM

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) Kansas legislators approved a bill Friday night declaring that the federal government has no authority to regulate prairie chickens in the state as a protest against potential federal oversight of efforts to reverse a steep decline in the population of one species.

But the measure sent by the Republican-dominated Legislature to GOP Gov. Sam Brownback is not as strong as some state officials wanted because it wouldn't subject federal employees attempting to regulate prairie chickens or their habitats to felony charges or fines. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who advocated an aggressive response, called it "more symbolism than substance."

The bill is designed to trigger lawsuits against federal efforts to regulate prairie chickens and their habitats by giving the attorney general or county prosecutors the authority to file them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March listed the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, but the bill also covers its larger, darker and more abundant cousin, the greater prairie chicken.

The listing allows federal oversight of efforts to revive the lesser prairie chicken population, and it affects five states with habitats for the bird Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Kansas officials fear that federal officials could impose limits on agricultural and oil and natural gas industry activities, such as ordering farmers not to spray certain fields or directing ranchers to avoid grazing cattle in certain areas during the lesser prairie chickens' nesting season.

"I just talk about my ancestry and your ancestry. They came to America for freedom," said Rep. Sharon Schwartz, a Washington Republican and chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. "Our property should be ours. We should be able to control our property, not the federal government."

The federal government said those five states had fewer than 18,000 lesser prairie chickens in 2013, down almost 50 percent from 2012. Kansas officials contend drought is the primary reason for the decline and say that the population will rebound.

Brownback has not said publicly whether he'll sign the bill, but he's been a strong critic of the federal listing. Kansas also has joined Oklahoma in a federal lawsuit challenging the process that led to the listing.

The final text of the Kansas bill emerged from negotiations between senators and House members. Republican senators pushed first to make it a felony for federal employees to attempt to regulate prairie chickens and then, as a compromise, to fine them up to $1,000.

Schwartz resisted both ideas. She said she heard concerns from agriculture and energy industry groups, worried that an overly confrontational approach would jeopardize the environmental and other permits they need to operate or even endanger federal farm aid.

Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Larry Powell acknowledged that he wanted a tougher bill.

"This is the best we could do," he said.

Kobach, a conservative Republican and former law professor, said threatening federal employees with felony charges or fines would pull any federal regulatory action into court and give the state the right to defend its law. Kobach said that without a clear violation of state law, the attorney general or a county prosecutor might not have the standing to intervene.

"If there is not penalty impose on a federal officer, then the bill is essentially defanged," Kobach said.

But the Democrats involved in the negotiations over the bill, Sen. Marci Francisco, of Lawrence, and Rep. Ponka-We Victors, of Wichita, still found the bill to confrontational.

Both said the state should signal that it is willing to work with federal officials on conservation efforts, so that lesser prairie chicken numbers rise.

"We want to, as a state, to do everything we can to provide for the necessary habitat and have this listing reversed," Francisco said.

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Online:

Text of the prairie chicken proposal: http://bit.ly/1hlD3NT

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna .

Topics: Prairie Chickens-Kansas

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