Kobach urges tough Kansas bill on prairie chickens

Lesser Prairie Chicken

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Secretary of State Kris Kobach pushed Kansas legislators Wednesday for an aggressive response to the U.S. government’s designation of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, criticizing a committee for rejecting proposals to punish federal employees attempting to manage the bird’s population.

Kobach, a former law professor, supports a bill declaring that the federal government has no authority to regulate prairie chickens or their habitats in Kansas. He also backed making it a felony for a federal employee to attempt to enforce any law, regulation or treaty dealing with the lesser prairie chicken or its larger and darker cousin, the greater prairie chicken.

The state Senate approved a bill containing both provisions in February, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered the listing for the lesser prairie chicken. The federal agency announced its decision last week, prompting Kansas to join a federal lawsuit filed by Oklahoma that challenges the process leading to the designation.

The Kansas House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week jettisoned the provision allowing felony charges against federal employees and an alternate proposal to fine them $100 for each enforcement attempt.

Instead, the House committee’s version of the bill allows the attorney general to go to court to block federal conservation efforts. The House expects to debate the measure in late April or early May, after lawmakers finish an annual spring break.

Kobach confirmed that he had a staffer for his re-election campaign tweet on Wednesday, “URGENT ALERT – PRAIRIE CHICKEN BILL GUTTED! Call your state reps today.”

“The ability of the state to step in and defend Kansas landowners is now restricted,” Kobach told The Associated Press. “It’s perplexing as to why they would do this.”

Kobach said he’s fine with fining federal employees rather than subjecting them to potential felony charges. But Rep. Sharon Schwartz, the House committee’s chairwoman, said its members saw either approach as too confrontational.

“There’s people that think it puts a black eye on Kansas to be coming in and saying that Kansas can arrest a federal agent and fine them or penalize them,” said Schwartz, a Washington Republican.

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

Kansas officials contend that drought is the biggest reason for the population decline and argue that the listing is unnecessary because the states developed a conservation plan. The federal agency says its listing will allow the plan to go forward, but Kansas officials fear the Fish and Wildlife Service could force farmers, ranchers and oil, natural gas and wind-energy companies to adopt costly conservation practices.

The office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced Wednesday that Kansas entered the federal court case in Oklahoma on Tuesday. Oklahoma filed the lawsuit last week, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service is not following the process spelled out by federal law for listing the lesser prairie chicken and other species as threatened.

“We felt the feds just really went too far,” Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday.

Kobach, a conservative Republican who’s advised legislators on issues such as guns and immigration, said he wants to create “an immediate conflict” between Kansas and the federal government.

Then, he said, “The issue comes to court very quickly before any Kansas landowner is injured or his property is threatened.”

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Online:

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

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

Kansas secretary of state: http://www.kssos.org

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

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