TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas will develop a program for breeding lesser prairie chickens in hopes of getting the federal government to back off its listing of the bird as a threatened species, Gov. Sam Brownback announced Thursday.
An Audubon of Kansas leader labeled the idea "far-fetched" and said it won't work because game birds bred in captivity typically don't have the skills necessary to survive long in the wild.
Brownback, a Republican and a strong critic of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's decision to list the bird as threatened, said he directed the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to draft a plan for such a program. Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the program would round up prairie chickens in the wild, have them mate in captivity and then release them.
The bird's listing as threatened means the federal government has oversight of state preservation efforts. It affects Kansas as well as four other states with prairie chicken habitats — Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Kansas has taken multiple steps to challenge the listing. Brownback and other officials contend it will damage the economy because farmers, ranchers and oil and natural gas producers face restrictions on their operations and potentially hefty conservation fees. The federal agency said in March the listing was justified by a decline of nearly 50 percent in the lesser prairie chicken's population between 2012 and 2013.
The federal government must sign off on a captive breeding program for the bird, and Brownback said the state will seek the required permit.
"We know there will be challenges to this program, but I believe it is worth the effort to restore the chicken's population and get this federal regulatory burden off the backs of hard-working Kansans," Brownback said in a statement.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Lesli Gray said the agency couldn't comment on Brownback's plan because he just announced it, but the agency would review any request for a permit.
"Obviously, the Fish and Wildlife Service is interested in working with any parties on conservation efforts," Gray said.
But Audubon of Kansas Executive Director Ron Klataske said he doesn't see the federal government signing off on a captive breeding program, which he said are generally used now to breed game birds — raising them until they can fly for release into hunting areas to be downed within hours.
"Wildlife agencies have abandoned that approach, decades ago," Klataske said. "I can't imagine that any qualified biologist would endorse this."
Hawley said the program would be similar to one for the Attwater's prairie chicken, an endangered cousin to the larger and darker greater prairie chicken found in coastal grasslands in Texas. But Klataske called that program "an incredibly expensive" attempt at "propping up" a species near extinction.
Kansas officials have said repeatedly that persistent drought caused the decline in the lesser prairie chicken's population, and its numbers would rebound with adequate rain.
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies said last week that an aerial survey showed good rains in parts of the animal's five-state range led to a 20 percent increase in its population from last year. The association said there were about 22,400 birds, up from fewer than 18,800 last year.