Feb 5, 2015

Congressional rider delays decision on possible sage grouse listing

A rider tacked on to the Appropriations Act of 2015 will delay the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in deciding whether to place greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List for one year.

The service had planned to determine whether to list the Western bird later this year.

“To stop actions by the Fish and Wildlife Service that would have severe economic consequences on Western states and the nation’s efforts to become energy independent, the bill prohibits funding for the Service to issue further rules to place sage-grouse on the Endangered Species List,” says a description of the rider written by the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee. “The bill also includes $15 million within the BLM to conserve sage-grouse habitat to continue efforts to protect the species and its natural environment for the future.”

Sage grouse photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Wyoming has nearly 40 percent of the West’s greater sage grouse population, according to Tom Christensen, sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Christensen said not listing the bird is good for industry and others because, thus far, considerable conservation efforts have been made in this state on behalf of sage grouse.

Listing is counter-productive, he said. It puts at risk efforts made by industry that aid conservation in order to develop natural resources near sage grouse habitat, as well as those by others who do it simply for the sake of sage grouse. Many will pull their support if sage grouse are listed, Christensen predicted. Some might find it a hard pill to swallow if sage grouse were listed because it would result in more federal regulations, he said.

An example of industry support is ConocoPhillips Co. providing $1 million to support habitat conservation in the West through 2019. If the bird is listed, that money could disappear, Christensen said.

If listed, Bruce Hinchey suspects a lot more public land would become off limits to grazing and oil and gas development. Hinchey is president of Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which is based in Casper, and said listing also would mean a ban on hunting the grouse.

Listing sage grouse does breed more uncertainty in the oil and gas industry as to what sort of regulations would result, said Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. At this juncture, the Natural Resources Defense Council would neither support or oppose listing the bird. The organization trusts Fish and Wildlife’s review process to make the right listing decision, McEnaney said.

Mark Salvo, federal lands conservation director for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., said he is not so concerned about listing as he is about a federal draft conservation plan. The rider does not impact the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s draft National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, Salvo said.

“The Obama administration is still moving full steam ahead, and will continue to work with urgency alongside our federal, state and local partners to put conservation measures in place to protect important sagebrush habitat and avert the need to list the greater sage-grouse,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The final Environmental Impact Statement is due out this summer.

“We’re hoping the plans will be sufficient to preserve the species,” Salvo said.

“A new poll conducted by Tulchin Research for Defenders of Wildlife found that the majority of voters in western states want to see sage-grouse protected, even if that means listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act,” Courtney Sexton, Defenders of Wildlife communications associate, wrote in a November blog.

“Add to that one New Jerseyan,” Sexton wrote. “I didn’t know what a sage grouse was before I began working for Defenders of Wildlife. Now I consider myself, like the majority of Westerners, an advocate for their protection.”

Apparently the president’s conservation efforts won’t be derailed.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell
“The Obama administration is still moving full steam ahead, and will continue to work with urgency alongside our federal, state and local partners to put conservation measures in place to protect important sagebrush habitat and avert the need to list the greater sage-grouse,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a December statement.

“The rider has no effect on our efforts to develop and implement state and federal plans and to build partnerships to incentivize conservation,” Jewell said.

Warranted or not, a sage grouse sub-species listing is also on hold. The rider prevents Fish and Wildlife listing of the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado, Christensen said. But, he noted, the Gunnison sage grouse is not a bellwether of the greater sage grouse’s future.

“They’re a different species,” Christensen said.

Approximately 5,000 breeding Gunnison sage grouse live in seven populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, according to Fish and Wildlife. In November, the service announced it has determined the Gunnison sage grouse require Endangered Species Act protection.

Some may believe Fish and Wildlife is caving to the will of Congress, but, “I truly believe the service has every intention of making a decision based on the biology of the bird,” Christensen said.

Christensen who says he's “not an Endangered Species basher” said some species do merit protection under the act, but he does not believe greater sage grouse do.

“I truly believe the service has every intention of making a decision based on the biology of the bird,” said Tom Christensen of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Whether Fish and Wildlife lists the bird, Hinchey said he is sure either environmental groups or states will file lawsuits.

The rider gives short shrift to the efforts thus far to achieve a conservation consensus, McEnaney said.

“I think, from a political perspective, it’s unfortunate,” he said.

Said Jewell, “It’s disappointing that some members of Congress are more interested in political posturing than finding solutions to conserve the sagebrush landscape and the Western way of life.”

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