County officials across Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, Eastern New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma have concerns over the possible financial implications of the government’s decision, which could come by the spring. There’s such a high level of concern that the 32 western Kansas county commissioners of the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition feel the need to question if the lesser prairie-chicken warrants an endangered species listing.
“We wanted to first see if it warranted a listing,” Ken Klemm, Sherman County commissioner and president of the KNRC, said. “Nobody was questioning the science the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services was pointing to, so we came about to question what was behind the proposed listing as well as the legal processing to list the bird.”
Earlier in the year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services endorsed the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan. The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of those five states to conserve the species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The lesser prairie-chicken is found in the drier regions of the high plains, spanning from the Nebraska line down into Texas and the eastern parts of Colorado and New Mexico. The population has declined over the last year because of drought conditions, but Klemm said that testimony from experts reveal the bird to be rather resilient and the numbers will be just fine after the region receives precipitation.
“WAFWA has attractive and good conservation goals for the lesser prairie chicken, but it is also tied together with a mitigation aspect,” Klemm said. “The mitigation aspect is a tax on industries and activities in the prairie chicken range. Oil and gas pads, wind turbine structures, commercial buildings, transmission lines, roads, residential buildings, even a chicken house would be excessed fines and fees depending on where it is to be built.”
The mitigation scheme in its entirety, Klemm said, makes the conservation areas in Western Kansas unattractive for new business to invest. His example was of a business with interest in establishing a wind turbine facility that would find a great plot of land in the area, but then realize that the mitigation fees would add an extra $1 million in costs per turbine when installation already demands $2 million. Transmission lines could cost upwards of $870,000 per mile over lesser prairie-chicken conservation areas as well, making the region economically unattractive.
“What we would see is industries looking at this region and just saying, ‘I think i’ll take a pass and go somewhere else to construct my building and bring my business to,’” Klemm said. “It’ll be an economic wet blanket on Western Kansas.”
The KNRC has also discovered that the possible increase in transmission and electrical distribution lines could effect the electric bill of those who don’t live on the conservations. Klemm claimed that residents in cities and counties will likely see an increase their taxes that local government entities are going to have to cover.
Land owners would also suffer financial decreases in their plots due to the five-state plan paying off a land owner to not utilize the land in ways harmful to the bird’s habitat.
“You’d sell off a portion of the value of your land to someone who could use a tax break and you take your land out of production,” Klemm said. “This will lower the tax evaluation in each county and the remaining taxpayers in the county will be forced to pay a higher tax rate to cover the lower tax rate those properties might be afforded.”
Klemm believes that a compromised lesser prairie-chicken conservation plan is doable and hopes both sides can reach an agreement.
“This is not a lobbying effort by any means,” Klemm said. “We look forward to working with the Kansas Division of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a plan for these birds that is realistic, feasible and protects the economy and property rights of Western Kansas citizens.”
A decision on whether or not to implement the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act is expected by March.
–This story was written and compiled by Beau Tiongson. Photograph courtesy and additional sources hyperlinked in text.