- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 3, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced Tuesday that he is pushing the federal government to assume some costs for protecting the lesser prairie chicken by expanding incentives for farmers to enroll their land in a longstanding conservation program.

Brownback also said Kansas will return to federal court this week to seek additional time for farmers, ranchers, and oil and natural gas producers to respond to the federal government’s decision in March to list the bird as threatened. Kansas residents were supposed to decide last month whether to participate in conservation efforts. They faced restrictions and federal fees to continue business activities in areas with prairie chicken habitats.

The Republican governor criticized the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a regulatory overreach by the federal government that threatens the state’s economy. He outlined new state responses during an Associated Press interview and had a news conference in Wichita.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said the listing is justified by a steep decline in the bird’s numbers in recent years. The five states affected - Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas - had fewer than 18,000 in 2013, down almost 50 percent from 2012.

Brownback released a letter dated Monday to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pursue “enhanced incentives” to encourage more farmers to enroll land in the agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays them not to cultivate. Brownback said doing so would expand lesser prairie chicken habitats; with such a move, the federal government also would pay farmers to help protect the bird, rather than the other way around.

“If they’re upset about loss of habitat, the federal government has a fabulous tool that is available and that they’ve been cutting back on,” Brownback said during the Statehouse briefing. “Instead, they’re putting the costs on the private landowner and energy industry.”

The two federal departments announced last month that landowners enrolled in the program and adopting practices to protect the lesser prairie chicken would not be subject to additional restrictions. USDA spokesman Cullen Schwarz said farmers in all five states already receive conservation funds through “a number of programs.”

“Kansas farmers are receiving enhanced incentives through the Conservation Reserve Program in particular,” Schwarz said in a statement. “USDA will continue to provide the support we can to help farmers in Kansas and throughout the region with voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs.”

But federal farm legislation enacted earlier this year cut the cap on acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program by 25 percent, to 24 million from 32 million. Kansas acreage in the program has declined by 28 percent since 2008, to less than 2.4 million.

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said rising commodity prices, federal support for ethanol production and heavy federal subsidies for crop insurance have given farmers incentives not to enroll on the conservation program, resulting in “a major loss of wildlife habitat.” Audubon of Kansas has criticized Brownback for opposing the listing, but Klataske said improved conservation incentives are a good idea.

And U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said: “I would be very supportive of that.”

Kansas already has responded to the listing in other ways.

A new Kansas law that took effect last month declares that the federal government has no authority to regulate lesser prairie chickens inside the state and allows the attorney general or county prosecutors to sue to block federal conservation efforts. Kansas also joined Oklahoma, Nebraska and North Dakota in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa over the process leading to the lesser prairie chicken’s listing at threatened.

Brownback said the plaintiffs in that case will file a new version of the lawsuit this week, seeking more time for farmers, ranchers and energy producers to respond to the prairie chicken listing.


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

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