In pushing a state law to exclude the Lesser Prairie Chicken in Kansas from federal protection that doesn’t exist yet, Secretary of State Kris Kobach is picking an unnecessary and probably expensive fight with the federal government. It’s a fight the Kansas Legislature should reject.
The legislation, introduced into both houses of the Legislature last month, would bar federal protection for the Lesser Prairie Chicken (and the Greater Prairie Chicken, which is more abundant). Further, it would claim sovereignty over nonmigratory wildlife and declare any federal law in Kansas pertaining to the Lesser Prairie Chicken void. It also would authorize state officials to charge federal officials with a felony if they try to enforce a federal law pertaining to the Lesser Prairie Chicken.
What has spurred this action is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Among federal concerns is that the historical range of the Lesser Prairie Chicken has shrunk by 84 percent, primarily because of development and because native grasslands have been converted to agricultural uses. A decision on the birds’ status is expected this spring.
Mr. Kobach’s allies include Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., which are concerned that listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species would take a severe toll on agriculture and energy jobs and development in western Kansas. Those concerns have merit.
Other groups question the wisdom of listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken as threatened, but for significantly different reasons. Among those is an association of wildlife officials from the five states that form the lesser prairie chicken’s traditional habitat: Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. They simply don’t think the listing is necessary.
They believe that, working with agriculture and other interests, they can protect and even restore the Lesser Prairie Chicken population. In fact, they have proposed a conservation plan to do just.
They also are concerned that the Kansas legislative proposal, which would outlaw federal-private efforts on behalf of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, would leave the animal even more vulnerable.
Despite the multi-state wildlife officials’ effort, which could well win over federal conservation authorities, Mr. Kobach considers the legislative action necessary and likens it to “holding a club in the background.”
It’s a club that would seem as likely to provoke federal authorities as dissuade them from action. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, Mr. Kobach called the issue “a fight worth fighting.” He said the legislation could result in a legal battle pitting states’ rights against federal law, and estimated legal costs at $100,000 to $400,000.
In our view, if Mr. Kobach objects to protection for the Lesser Prairie Chicken, he ought to take it up with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and our state’s congressional delegation. Rather than defying the federal government, he should work with it.
Though this effort might go over well with the Legislature’s tea party caucus, Mr. Kobach has no business deciding which federal laws Kansas ought to obey and which to ignore.