The Woodward News

September 7, 2011

Listing may danger state economy

Jessica Bruha
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — Several state leaders believe the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species would endanger the state's economy as well.

Some local landowners feel their rights as property owners may be threatened too.  

These state leaders, landowners as well as other political figures and businessmen  shared their concerns during a public forum hosted by U. S. Sen. Jim Inhofe's office at High Plains Technology Center Wednesday evening.

Understanding a desire to protect the birds, some landowners suggested less drastic measures to improve lesser prairie chicken populations other than a listing on the endangered species list, which would bring restrictions and regulations that would affect everyone from farmers to wind developers to construction crews repairing Oklahoma roads.

Alan Jett, of Slapout, said he previously asked representatives of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "Why don't you guys pay us to leave grain on the ground?"

"Well the answer was, 'We care about habitat, not artificially increasing the number of prairie chickens.' It seems to me like this whole thing is about increasing the number of prairie chickens," Jett said.

Representatives from the oil, gas and wind energy industries discussed measures they already take when developing land to avoid disturbing lesser prairie chicken habitats.

Vice President of Competitive Power Ventures Steve Wolfgram talked about developing wind farms near Woodward.  He said the company spent a lot of time and energy looking at the environment and going to landowners to ask them if the lesser prairie chicken would be negatively impacted if they developed on the land.

Wolfgram said many of landowners in Oklahoma said the lesser prairie chickens hadn't been around for decades.

However, at another project in Kansas there were prairie chickens in an area they had planned to develop, he said.  Because the company cares and is concerned, he said Competitive Power Ventures spent the money to move the project so the species would not be affected.

Many people also discussed the negative impact on the economy that would occur if the lesser prairie chicken were listed as an endangered species.

State Sen. Bryce Marlatt said the listing will have a devastating effect on jobs. He said they are trying to maintain and create jobs and if industries cannot develop on the land because of the lesser prairie chicken, it will diminish jobs.

Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese agreed.

Reese discussed how oil, gas and wind industries provide a lot of jobs which allow families to stay in Western Oklahoma.

Beyond affecting the area and state economy, some question whether listing the prairie chicken as endangered and generating more governmental involvement will actually benefit the birds.

Jett said people receive a lot of conflicting information from the government.

For example, one of the problems for the prairie chickens are fences, which he said the government encouraged people to put up in the Homestead Act.  Also, Eastern Red Cedar trees are problematic to the habitat of the prairie chickens, which he said the government gave landowners to plant for wind breaks.

"It seems to me like part of the problem is the government. So do you guys have a better plan this time?" Jett asked.

Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Dan Ashe said he understood that economic effects are a great concern with the potential listing of the prairie chicken.  However, Ashe said the law requires the decision to be based on the biological status of the species, which includes an examination of population numbers, geographic isolation and genetic diversity.

Ashe said they are currently in the "diagnosis" stage of the listing process. The Wildlife Service, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, Oklahoma politicians and other agencies are partnering together in order to research the biological status of the lesser prairie chicken which will ultimately determine whether or not it will be listed as an endangered or threatened species.

Results will not be determined until June 2012 and the Wildlife Service expects to issue a proposed rule on whether to list the species by Sept. 30, 2012.