- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Florida Scrub-Jay as “threatened,” one of the bird’s unlikely heroes turned out to be a phosphate mining company.

Mosaic Fertilizer obtained permission to mine on 40 acres that were home to 12 scrub-jay families by working with conservationists and scientists on a habitat mitigation plan. Today, the land the fertilizer company mitigated is home to 29 scrub-jay families, according to Reed Bowman, of the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida.

“That result has been hugely positive,” said Bowman, an associate research biologist. “They got to develop their land, and they probably have recouped the value of the mitigation they did in the P.R. for doing a great job. It was a net plus-plus for everybody.”

Leaders of the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback recently passed a law barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas. They said the federal agency’s listing of the chicken as “threatened” will devastate the state’s agriculture and mineral-harvesting industries.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he would propose a 25 percent cut to the agency’s budget to pressure it to drop the “threatened” designation that Huelskamp said could be a “death knell” for growth in western Kansas with an effect that “can’t be overstated.”

Experts on both coasts said that when birds were listed as threatened in other states, it had some impact on economic development but wasn’t entirely prohibitive.

The “threatened” designation is relatively rare compared to the wildlife service’s “endangered” designation, which comes with more stringent protections. In the case of the prairie chicken, U.S. Fish and Wildlife further softened the “threatened” listing with a promise to exempt land-users participating in a voluntary conservation plan being developed by officials in Kansas and the other four states in the bird’s range.

Other birds to receive the “threatened” designation include the bald eagle, the Audubon’s Crested Caracara, the Florida Scrub-Jay and the Coastal California Gnatcatcher.

The eagle is a success story, having moved up from endangered to threatened as numbers improved. It is now considered stable but, as a national icon, is still protected under a separate law.

The other birds have been listed as “threatened” for decades due largely to habitat loss.

Kansas joined a lawsuit with Oklahoma over the prairie chicken listing, and the new state law asserts that the feds have no jurisdiction over the chicken because, though it lives in five states, it is nonmigratory.

California and Florida haven’t similarly challenged federal authority, though the gnatcatcher and scrub-jay live only within their borders.

The caracara lives mostly in Florida but also is found in the warm climes of the southwestern United States and Central America.

The birds continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act, but their habitats continue to be developed, with some extra measures taken for mitigation.

“By and large I would say, yes, the listing of the California gnatcatcher has had an impact,” said Garrison Frost, of Audubon California. “But last time I checked, people were still building houses along the coastline of California.”

Douglas Buck, who grew up in Garden City but is now government affairs director for the Florida Home Builders Association, said working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a challenge, but the effects on development lie not with the listing of a species, but with habitat management plans that may arise after the listing.

“Where the little scrub-jay has its habitat or had habitat, it becomes areas that are, to a great extent, off limits,” Buck said. “There are setbacks and you can’t develop, so in that regard it impacts the cost of housing. Now the scrub-jay is not all over the place, but particularly in Florida, any time you have an endangered species or any of the other designations where there is a management plan put in place, it depends on what that management plan says.”

There is no such federal plan yet for the prairie chicken. Heath Whitlaw, field supervisor in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manhattan, Kansas, office, said the agency is working with the range-wide plan developed by the five states.

“All those things are in place for us to reduce the impact of the listing on private landowners and industry,” Whitlaw said.

Whitlaw referred further questions about a habitat management plan to Susan Jacobson, who works in one of the agency’s New Mexico offices.

Jacobson said there may not be a mandatory habitat plan for the prairie chicken. She said a group called American Habitat Center is working on one but it, like the five-state plan, will be voluntary.

“We try to get as many tools or options available for people to participate in, so they wouldn’t have to worry about a listing,” Jacobson said. “So if they have chickens on their land or wherever they’re doing work, they have these options.”

As far as her agency taking legal action to bar development entirely, Jacobson said it is very unlikely.

“In my experience, and I’ve been in this program for 20 years, that has never happened to my knowledge, where somebody said ‘you cannot,’ ” Jacobson said.

In California and Florida, residential development has been the major encroachment on bird habitat. That isn’t a concern where the prairie chicken roams in western Kansas. Fears in Kansas have largely centered on the listing’s effects on agriculture, wind turbines and oil and natural gas exploration.

Jacobson said oil and gas companies are signing on to the voluntary plans and the wind industry has an existing “conservation corridor” for the whooping crane that’s being adapted for the prairie chicken. Agriculture, she said, has little to fear, because the chickens thrive on grazing lands.

“What’s good for the ranch is good for the chickens,” Jacobson said. “In my mind, it’s a win-win.”


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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