Kansas Senate plans to take stand on federal protections for lesser prairie chicken

The bird has been the center of debate since 2019 with Republicans and environmental activists on opposing sides

By: - January 17, 2023 10:48 am
Sen. Dan Kerschen appears at a committee hearing

Sen. Dan Kerschen, explaining his disapproval of federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken, says farmers need to be considered. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate will vote on whether or not to register disapproval of federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken this week as part of a ongoing battle to strip protections from the bird.

Sen. Dan Kerschen, a Garden Plain Republican, said the bird’s protected status was a burden on Kansas farmers during a Tuesday meeting of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs. Kerschen introduced a Senate concurrent resolution disapproving the designation of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species and formally supporting efforts to remove the protected status of the bird.

Kerschen said he wanted to see all the facts in the case, saying recent weather, such as droughts, may have had an negative impact on the lesser prairie chicken, and that Kansans had proven able to farm and raise cattle around the birds for years.

“You’ve got to keep in mind to protect farmers’ interests, oil producers, those folks, ranchers who are grazing their cattle on that land,” Kerschen said. “All of the sudden, someone comes and tells them how much you can do, and where your cattle can be, those kinds of things, interfering with the production part of it.”

The lesser prairie chicken, which is known for a unique and colorful spring mating dance, is best suited for living in large areas of native grasslands. Lawmakers have said preserving the birds’ environments would threaten the livelihoods of farmers, ranchers and energy producers.

The birds have been the center of debate for years, with Kansas Republicans and environmental activists clashing on what, if any, protections were needed for the birds. In 2019, three conservation groups sued the federal government to force action on the issue.

With 90% of their original habitat lost over the years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, there’s been a five-year decline in the lesser prairie chicken population. Few of the birds have been seen in their native Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas environments. In November, federal wildlife officials registered the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in Kansas and endangered in their habitat in the southwest U.S.

Since the listing, Republican congressmen have been fighting protections, most recently through a Congressional Review Act. The act is used to block rules issued by federal agencies. Under the act, an agency has to submit a report to Congress on its rule. After receiving the report, Congress can submit and act on a joint resolution of disapproval.

Ten Republican congressmen from Oklahoma and Kansas registered their disapproval of the listing through the act, trying to overturn the ruling on the grounds that it would be bad for the agriculture and oil and gas industries.

Among the legislation supporters were Kansas Sens. Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran, along with Reps. Ron Estes, Jake LaTurner and Tracey Mann. Estes also introduced a bill that would prohibit the U.S. Interior Department from imposing restraints on land use based on the status of the lesser prairie chicken.

Kerschen said he supported the lawmakers’ efforts, saying livestock shouldn’t be displaced in favor of the birds.

“Cattle are a sensitive-natured animal too. That’s why we take care of them,” Kerschen said. “They can’t just roam around free. That’s just an example.”

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.