Kansas House panel approves prairie chicken bill

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A bill declaring that the federal government has no authority to regulate prairie chickens in Kansas cleared a legislative committee Tuesday after members jettisoned a provision making it a felony for federal workers to try.

The measure approved by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is a response to the federal government’s adding the lesser prairie chicken last week to a list of threatened species. State officials have worried that farmers, ranchers and oil, natural gas and wind-energy companies will be forced to undertake costly conservation efforts.

The committee’s voice vote in favor of the bill sends it to the full House for debate later this week. The state Senate overwhelmingly approved the stronger version of the bill in February, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered the listing, but even House members wanting to resist the action are wary of declaring federal employees are criminals for following supervisors’ instructions.

The House committee’s version of the bill says the attorney general can go to court to stop federal attempts to regulate prairie chickens. The bill covers both the lesser prairie chicken and its larger, darker cousin, the greater prairie chicken.

House committee Chairwoman Sharon Schwartz, a Washington Republican, acknowledged the bill now mostly allows Kansas residents to express opposition to the listing and it’s not clear whether it would impede the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I think it will give some support to landowners out there right now,” Schwartz said.

But Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Manhattan Democrat, questioned whether it is necessary and suggested lawmakers should be worried about the lesser prairie chicken’s possible extinction.

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said the House committee eliminated “most of the toxic stuff” in the bill, but he added, “It’s garbage in, and it’s still garbage coming out.”

The listing affects five states with prairie chicken habitats — Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The federal agency said the five states had fewer than 18,000 lesser prairie chickens in 2013, down almost 50 percent from 2012. Kansas officials contend the biggest reason is drought.

Gov. Sam Brownback already has declared that Kansas will join Oklahoma in a federal lawsuit challenging the process the federal agency used to consider the listing for the lesser prairie chicken. State official argue there’s no need for the listing because the five states developed a conservation plan.

“We’ve been generally positive on anything we can do to conserve the prairie chicken and push back against federal overreach,” Brownback said during an Associated Press interview Tuesday. “We’ll work with people on the bill to the degree we can do things with that bill.”

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Online:

Information about the prairie chicken bill: http://bit.ly/1grpgpD

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

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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