A lesser prairie chicken in short grass prairie. Stacy Hoeme, a rancher and conservationist, has been a champion of the birds. He has several on his 10,000-acre ranch along the Smoky Hill River.

SCOTT CITY — Bouncing over the sand sage-covered hills in his pickup truck, rancher Stacy Hoeme combs the shortgrass prairie of his ranch searching for leks — the mating grounds of the lesser prairie chicken.

Despite being one of the bird’s biggest champions and most successful conservators, Hoeme opposes putting the bird on the federal threatened species list.

“I just want them to maintain the birds,” he said. “It’s a big hassle when they get listed for the ranchers.”

The small, Nerf football-sized bird has become an unlikely proxy in a 26-year tug-of-war between industry and conservationists and their competing visions for how to use the riches of America’s Great Plains.

This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bird as threatened in Kansas and Oklahoma and endangered in Texas and New Mexico. That status puts limits on agriculture and oil and gas exploration on land that overlaps the bird’s territory — and underscores the reflexive differences between Democrats and Republicans where nature and commerce collide.

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