Monday, January 27, 2014

To Get to the Other Side

Why did the chicken cross the road? He didn't. Chickens don't migrate.

A few days ago I wrote an essay calling attention to the introduction of Kansas SB 276, which would enact state sovereignty over the control and management of the Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens in Kansas. I urged Kansans to consider this issue and weigh in on the ramifications of such a bill. I also made fun of Kris Kobach, because he just makes it so damn easy. The post has been widely read, but I am greedy, and I want to expand the audience. Truly, I believe that this little bird, native to the plains, is a national symbol and a champion against corporate greed and corruption in our state houses. With the chicken as my mascot, I am trying to call attention to a broader issue, one that concerns us all. And I don't mean just Kansans, I mean everyone.

Three days ago, I knew little of Prairie Chickens, but I'm quite familiar with the inclination of my home state's legislature to draft bills in favor of the energy industry. Maybe you live in a state with a similarly inclined body of representation. If so, you should be standing with the Prairie Chicken of Kansas. (I'm looking at you, Wisconsin and North Carolina)

Of course this a complicated issue that pits wildlife conservationists against the ag and energy industries. On one side, farmers and ranchers are concerned that their ability to graze and make a living will be compromised if federal regulations inhibit their land use. They're like, hey, I have all these cattle and I need to feed them this grass. That's valid.  And on the other side, environmentalists and natural conservationists are concerned that the degradation of a native species has ramifications beyond our current scope. Also valid. I want to understand all sides of the argument, because I genuinely feel that bridging that gap is not out of the question. There are also a hysterical few who predict that federal regulations in favor of the Prairie Chicken will mean that our electric bills will be $10,000 a month, but I'm going to take those yahoos out of the argument, because they're just silly. In response to the more valid concerns, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has offered to compensate farmers, ranchers and energy companies for their efforts at conserving habitat for the Lesser Prairie Chickens. They're all, hey guys, try to save some scrub brush for the chickens to nest, and we won't fine you for a few dead birds. We'll try to make sure you don't go broke over a chicken. 

Creating initiative for farmers and ranchers to reserve some land for the Prairie Chicken is really the only way to ensure his survival. Why does the Prairie Chicken matter to his grassland home? For starters, he eats a lot of seed, which means he fertilizes and redeposits a lot of seed. We can all dig the need for seed, right? It's so much nicer than dust.

Okay, so currently, the State of Kansas is considering a bill establishing sovereignty over the (ahem) management of the bird. Effectively, they are saying that there is no constitutional requirement for the state to comply with federal regulation of a native species. And the feds are saying that they have a lot of experience protecting threatened species without destroying whole economies. In fact, they currently oversee the conservation of several species in Kansas listed as endangered, and sky hasn't fallen yet. And I'm saying that the precedent of a state establishing sole command over it's native species or resources is a very dangerous one. The USFWS is offering to bridge the gap between economic development and conservation of a threatened species, and the state of Kansas is trying to maneuver itself out of the deal.

There are three possible reasons why. First, Kobach might really love Prairie Chickens and perhaps he's concerned that the feds won't take the measures necessary to protect them. It could be that Kansas's constitutionally Quixotic Secretary of State and his pals are a secret squad of environmental superheroes, complete with matching tights and capes. A second possibility is that Kobach has rightly deduced that the word prairie is french, that the birds must therefore be illegal Canadians, and must be extracted from the boundaries of the U.S. before they clog up the social services and send their kids to public school. But if that's not the reason, then it's probably because the Lesser Prairie Chicken currently resides in some pretty prime real estate if you're into drilling and fracking.

This is why the Lesser Prairie Chicken matters. It's not just about the chicken. It's about a state declaring eminent domain on its resources, and flipping off a federal agency concerned with preserving said resources. And if Kansas can do it, your state can do it too.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken is the perfect mascot for anyone who is freaked out by the notion that corporatocracy has permeated several state governments, and that many native species are potentially poised to be seen as little more than a nuisance to economy. There is a middle ground around here somewhere.

I am certainly not as well versed in constitutional law as Kris Kobach, but it's predictable that if the state of Kansas passes this bill, its constitutionality will be challenged at the federal level. It will cost the citizens of Kansas to pay for the litigation, and hopefully justice and reason will prevail. But what if they don't? What we have here is a potential precedent for any state to throw their native species down a well if they're in the way of corporate profit.

What if this: as goes the Prairie Chicken, so goes Kansas. As goes Kansas, so go the rest of the tea party strongholds. Yikes, man. This chicken matters.

This is not strictly an animal rights issue. Not strictly an environmental issue. Not a liberal vs. conservative issue. This is an issue of finding a balance between provision and conservation of resources. It's about being responsible stewards.

Please consider signing this petition to the Kansas Senate opposing SB 276.  Please consider telling your friends to sign it, too.

The toll of small environmental victories can amount to plenty. Maybe many years from now, there will be a Koch skull discovered in a patch of scrub brush in Western Kansas, with the stone from a Prairie Chicken's slingshot still lodged in its forehead.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Most Important Chicken in Kansas

Kansas, have you met this guy? This is the Lesser Prairie Chicken. He lives here on the prairie in western Kansas. That's why they call him a Prairie Chicken. The forename is to differentiate him from the Greater Prairie Chicken, but he's not insecure about that or anything. Something about the motion of the ocean.

Les used to live in the big brown space pictured in the map above, but they kicked him out of Texas after too many bar fights. Then he made some poor investment decisions and they cut his hours back at the plant, so he had to move into a smaller pad. He lives in the little green spaces now, primarily in Kansas and Oklahoma. The green space is going the way of the brown space, shrinking all the time due to agricultural and energy developments.

As tough as he is, and in spite of the Lesser Prairie Chicken's record of 41-2 in the Texas bar fights, he is up against his toughest opponent. This is the guy who is gunning for the big K.O.

Chicken Hawk: Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach 

Kris Kobach has the Lesser Prairie Chicken in his sights. In fairness, it would be a lot of trouble to shoot them all one at a time, so he's urging legislators to pass a bill titled Enacting State Sovereignty Over Non-Migratory Wildlife Act. This bill will expose Les the Prairie Chicken to the cruelest of Kansas elements... the energy industry.

This was supposed to slip by us, I think. We are not supposed to care about something like this. It is, after all, a chicken. It's a chicken. I ate one for dinner last night. But this chicken really needs our help, and in turn, he might be able to do something big for us.

Like many of us Kansans, the Lesser Prairie Chicken is, as the bill mentions, non-migratory. This is his home year round. He has no place else to go. He plays a critical role in the ecology of the grassland, as does every species on the prairie. Because no one has been looking out for him, he has lost most of his native grassland habitat and will very likely be added to the list of threatened species in the U.S. this year if the federal agencies in charge of such things are allowed to advocate for him.

Senate Bill 276 would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposing regulations to save the Prairie Chickens' native habitat from destruction at the hands of industry. If you read the language of SB 276, you'll see that Kobach presents that Kansas has been doing a fine job of protecting the Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens as yet, and that the State would prefer no Federal agencies peeking in on them. In fact, the language of the bill makes it a felony for any federal agency to intervene on behalf of the Greater or Lesser Prairie Chickens. If you compare the above map with Kobach's assertion that the birds are thriving, it's pretty clear that few Prairie Chickens will take comfort in the hands that are trying to get ahold of their fate.

If SB 276 passes, the survival of our native nonmigratory bird species will rest solely with the Kansas legislature. Why is Kobach concerning himself with the Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens? The answer is pretty simple. If their home becomes a federally protected habitat, the energy industries will be forced to reign in their to plan to desecrate what remains of it. Already more than 600 farmers and ranchers are participating in the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, and have restored and protected more than one million acres on their behalf. SB 276 threatens to undo all that.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken is caught up in the fight of his life against the State of Kansas and the big energy companies (read: Koch Industries) that are designing legislation intended to put corporate profit ahead of the well being of the citizens of this state. Saving him, protecting his native home, would be a victory for us all and a message to Kobach that we are not going to passively accept the degradation of our prairie.

It's like that scene in Annie where the bad guy (Rooster) and his girlfriend pose as Annie's real parents so they can get the reward money from Daddy Warbucks, and you're watching them take her away and you're like No! No Annie! Don't go with them! Daddy Warbucks, don't let her go with them! Except in this situation Annie is a Prairie Chicken and Rooster is a shady Secretary of State. The Feds are Daddy Warbucks and we, the people of Kansas, we're Punjab. It's up to us to rescue Annie from the bad people and place her in the care of someone who can look out for her best interests.

We have to be this guy.

It's upon all of us to call bullshit on this one. This is an incredibly transparent effort on Kobach's part to protect the interests of industry at the expense of our environment. I've said it before and I'll say it until I die: they will not take this prairie without a fight from me. I started by contacting my state senate representatives, but I don't always know if they really hear me, so I'm inclined to do something more for the Prairie Chicken. I'm still thinking about what that will be, and pricing chicken suits for my one-man protest, but upon measuring my level of commitment to the Lesser Prairie Chicken, I find that I feel entirely hell bent on saving him from the bad guys. If we can convince our fellow statesmen to notice what's happening to a chicken out west, maybe we can reclaim a small part of our home from the greedy hands that would abuse it. 

Save the Prairie Chickens!!!

Update 1/27  Sign the petition to end this bill in the Kansas Senate.
I will forward the petition to the members of the Committee on Natural Resources and the rest of the senate. Then I will deliver a copy to the Secretary of State's office wearing this chicken suit: