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.

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