Dueling lawsuits over Lesser Prairie Chicken

Published On: Aug 06 2014 07:31:00 AM CDT   Updated On: Jun 17 2014 10:20:51 PM CDT

A new lawsuit claims the federal government isn't doing enough to save a threatened species in Kansas.

"The position in the lawsuit is that the species needs to be listed as an endangered species," said Tanya Sanerib, who helped write the new lawsuit over the Lesser Prairie Chicken's status.

"I don't know what more these outside interest groups want us to do, other than just shut down the oil and gas production," said state senator Michael O'Donnell of Wichita, who sits on the Senate's Natural Resources Committee. He's spent the last year working on how to save the bird and the state's economy at the same time.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday comes from a conservation organization that believes the Lesser Prairie Chicken should be more than just a threatened species. However another lawsuit filed by Kansas and Oklahoma says the federal government went too far.

Both sides say they care about the future of the bird that's emblematic of the western prairie. But they disagree on just how much protection it needs and whether that protection is more important than the Kansas economy.

"Survey results showed that the population which we estimated to be around 35,000 birds, was actually half of that by 2013," said Sanerib.

But O'Donnell says that's a normal slump in the population. "A lot of that came from the drought that Kansas has been suffering from the last few years, that you're going to have a smaller number of Prairie Chickens."

The bird won't nest anywhere near high standing objects, like windmills and oil rigs. The federal designation of threatened means there could be no additional building anywhere within the bird's natural habitat without a permit.

"And that is not a particularly onerous process," said Sanerib.

"Ask the supports of the Keystone Pipeline how easy a permit is to get," disagreed O'Donnell.

That habitat is a prime area for ranching and the oil industry in several states. Kansas got together with those other states to form their own, voluntary plan, to save the Prairie Chicken without affecting ranchers and businesses.

"We support them," O'Donnell said of the birds. "That's why we're putting three and a half million acres of land to conserve these birds."

Sanerib says the states' plan isn't enough, partially because it's purely voluntary.

"It's uncertain how many people will enroll in that agreement, and it's uncertain what conservation benefit it's going to have for the species," she said.

The conservation groups are suing the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife for more protections, including moving the Lesser Prairie Chicken from threatened to endangered status.

"We don't know in the future how important these prairie ecosystems might be to our human continued existence," said Sanerib.

She says the process is proven to work and won't stop economic development in western Kansas and other affected states.

But O'Donnell believes there's another motive behind the push.

"What they're trying to do is hurt our oil and gas production in Kansas," he said.

The groups behind this latest lawsuit for more protections are based in Oregon, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Kansas and Oklahoma expect more states to join them in suing against the regulations put in place earlier this spring. No court dates have been announced yet in either lawsuit.