Federal protection of wild chicken causes uproar among ranchers, business owners

Jeff Haley, land owner and county commissioner, said he's concerned with how the protection of the lesser prairie chicken will affect area land.

New federal regulations that protect a wild chicken that roams the high plains is causing an uproar among ranchers and other businesses owners.

Critics say this is a classic case of federal overreach and that Washington has jumped the gun in declaring the lesser prairie chicken threatened, while environmentalists claim the endangered species act is critical for the survival of hundreds of animals around the country.

The lesser prairie chicken numbers have dramatically dwindled in recent years, causing the federal government to step in and label the species endangered. This will trigger a slew of new regulations, which some say may be necessary to save this native bird.

The lesser prairie chicken is smaller than the related greater prairie chicken, and has roamed the area of the Panhandle, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado for thousands of years. While experts disagree on many things such as how many lesser prairie chickens are left in the wild and what exactly led to their decline, but they do agree that the recent drought has probably accelerated the stress on the species.

Now, the federal government has classified the species as threatened and the designated critical habitat area covers nearly entirely our region. The feds have decided that previous efforts were not enough.

"Landowners agreed to conservation practices, then they get the regulatory assurance that they can't be prosecuted for take or incidental take," Jeff Bonner, a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, said.

The conservation program rules will now change with the listing, and this has ranchers concerned that they can be charged with "take", a federal offense that includes a long list of ways in which the species could be harmed.

"You can say well I'm going to fence a pasture, maybe subdivide a pasture, and a new fence could be constituted as 'take' under the definition and then if I were charged with 'take', I would bear the expense of defending myself against a federal charge in a federal court," Jeff Haley, a Gray County landowner and county commissioner, said.

Kansas has already filed a lawsuit against the federal government, and others are expected to follow. Energy interests also are watching very carefully what these new regulations mean for their industry.

"So oil and gas, wind turbines, any tall structure now is going to be in jeopardy when it comes to where they can put this if it's going to be in the middle of the lesser prarie chicken's all going to have to be looked at," Steve Myers, the director of Class 4 Winds and Renewables said.

Environmentalists say endangered species act is presently recognized as one of the few laws on the books that have "teeth" or the legal power to preserve land. And remember, without this law many of our most beloved species such as the bald eagle, probably wouldn't be around. Hopefully a balance can be struck between business and environmental protection in this ongoing case.