Kansas lawmakers agree on prairie chicken plan

JOHN HANNA, AP Political Writer


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators who seemed ready to pursue fines of up to $1,000 against federal employees who attempt to regulate prairie chickens in the state backed off that proposal Thursday night in favor of a less confrontational protest against the U.S. government.

House and Senate negotiators agreed on the wording of a bill declaring that the federal government lacks the authority over prairie chickens or their habitats in Kansas. The measure is a response to the federal government’s decision last month to list the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, though the measure also asserts state sovereignty over the larger, darker and more abundant greater prairie chicken.

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The final version will allow the attorney general to sue to block federal actions, something the House had suggested. Republican senators initially wanted to make it a felony for federal employees to attempt to regulate prairie chickens but then suggested fines as a compromise.

The three Senate and three House negotiators were close Thursday morning to agreeing on fines but during an extended break, House members reconsidered. Lead House negotiator Sharon Schwartz, a Republican from Washington, Kansas, said agricultural industry groups came forward to express concerns that an overly confrontational approach could boomerang, making it harder to obtain regulatory permits or even endangering federal aid.

“We sort of drug it out because, my own self, I didn’t want it to cause issues, unintended consequences,” Schwartz said. “We started hearing from people.”

With an agreement, both chambers could vote on the proposal Friday, when legislative leaders were hoping to wrap up lawmakers’ business for the year. If the Legislature approves the bill, it will go to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

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Brownback has strongly criticized the federal government’s listing as an overreach that threatens farming, ranching and the oil and natural gas industries. He and other officials fear that the federal government could mandate limits on business activities, such as ordering farmers not to spray certain fields or ranchers to avoid grazing cattle in certain areas during the lesser prairie chickens’ nesting season.

Kansas already has joined Oklahoma in a federal lawsuit challenging the process leading to the federal listing, which allows federal supervision of states’ conservation efforts.

But Sen. Larry Powell, a Garden City Republican and his chamber’s lead negotiator, had wanted the bill to be more than a written protest.

“If you have a law and you have no penalties, what’s the use of having the law?” Powell said.

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And in early April, when a House committee drafted wording similar to what’s in the final version, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican and former law professor, had a political staffer tweet that the prairie chicken legislation had been “GUTTED,” along with an “URGENT ALERT” for his supporters to contact lawmakers.

The federal government’s listing affects five states with prairie chicken habitats — Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The federal government said those 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 and that the population will rebound.

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said state officials should embrace habitat conservation efforts and help the lesser prairie chicken population rebound to where the bird is no longer threatened. He called the bill “absurd.”

“It will accomplish nothing but slow the process of conservation and make Kansas look like it’s in the dark ages,” Klataske said.