This little guy is a thorn in the side of Big Energy and the Republican politicians that serve it. Why? It was able to unite hunters, ranchers, land owners, local politicians, the USDA, the Audubon Society, universities, and even ConocoPhillips to prevent it from being listed as Endangered. Which probably ensured its long term survival. Wait, what?
This bird is the sage grouse, colloquially known as the prairie chicken. And a more unlikely player in nationwide political intrigue you will not find. As the name suggests, it lives in the sagebrush that blankets western states, where it blends in so well that most of us will never see one. To better spot predators, its eyes are mounted on the sides of its head, which gives it both poor forwards visibility and a predisposition for running into fence posts.
As a prey species for all sorts of predatory birds and mammals, it plays an important role in the ecosystem, but its real significance lies not as dinner for coyotes. The sage grouse is an “indicator species;” the fate of the sage grouse is closely linked to the fate of the vast sagebrush ecosystem as a whole.
“[The sage grouse] is setting a prototype for a whole new way of doing conservation,” an Audubon Society VP and Colorado rancher told the New Yorker. “Instead of curing little postage-stamp representative pieces, it looks at the whole organism at one time, so that we can devise a plan for the whole ecosystem in one fell swoop—that’s why this is important.”
And to save that ecosystem, they needed to keep the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species act.
Why? The unique sagebrush ecosystem — the whole thing — is under threat by energy development. As it spans the West, it also spans fields of oil, natural gas and minerals. And access to those resources is the subject of a fierce and nuanced political battle. And those invested in energy exploitation would have seen the sage grouse being listed by the Endangered Species Act as a victory along the way to gaining further access.
Field & Stream, a traditionally conservative magazine targeted at hunters and fishermen explains:
“They would have liked nothing better than an ESA crackdown on private lands. It would have provided more ammunition to throw at the big, bad, intrusive federal government they say is always trying to tell them how to live their lives. They never mention they are trying to live their lives with our public resources.”
Had the grouse been listed as Endangered, it would have shut down rancher access to grazing on public lands, restricted access for sportsmen and imposed limitations on the kinds of ways private land owners can use their property. That’s one reason why these disparate groups united around the issue. The other is because they also don’t want to lose the public lands they rely on for their livelihoods to private interests, and implementation of the ESA would have helped energy developers and the politicians they own in their quest to sell off your public lands.
How do you prevent an animal from being listed Endangered? You work to foster conservation, protecting the species from the wide range of threats it faces. The Sage Grouse Initiative was formed in 2010 to help conserve the bird, you can read a full list of its partners here, it’s impressively diverse, and lengthy. Seriously go read it, it will surprise you and it’s as good an argument as any for all this being a good cause.
“SGI is an ecosystem-based approach to wildlife conservation. Working with partners, we are conserving habitat for sage grouse, as well as pronghorn, mule deer, elk, songbirds, and 350 other species that share the same landscape. All while helping to manage vast, intact ranchlands in ways that also create more nutritious forage for livestock. SGI’s conservation efforts also protect critical water resources, important in an era of drought and water shortages that impact communities across the West.”
Fearing the success of such a large, well-funded and organized initiative, energy companies fought back. And they were clever about the way they did it.
In April, 2014, with the Fish and Wildlife’s ruling on sage grouse ESA protection looming, Sen. Corey Gardner (R, CO) introduced a bill called the Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act. It wanted to do for protection and conservation what the Patriot Act does for patriotism, calling for the USFWS ruling to be pushed back six years.
And efforts didn’t end there. Bizarrely, Republican lawmakers included the sage grouse in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2016. The National Wildlife Federation explains the provision called for, “barring the United States Fish and Wildlife Service from making any decision regarding the status of the Greater sage-grouse, including a decision that no listing is necessary pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The language also places unmerited limitations on how federal land management agencies may conserve vital habitats for these birds and other wildlife on America’s public lands.”
Just this afternoon, it was announced that the provision will not be included in the version of the NDAA the House and Senate just compromised on.
“In my experience, the carrot and stick approach is the most useful in these conservation issues — and the carrot doesn’t work without the stick, stated Steve Williams of the Wildlife Management Institute . “I can tell you that the progress this extraordinary effort has made over the last few years is likely to dissipate if the urgency of the deadline is pushed back six years, because that’s part of human nature. We’ll delay, turn our attention to other more immediate issues if we’re given the room to do that.”
In this case, the looming ESA deadline was the stick that got people organized into the Sage Grouse Initiative. And it worked. Last week the FWS announced the results of its 12-month study: “We find that listing the greater sage-grouse is not warranted at this time.” The Initiative had won.
Don’t underestimate the significance of that sentence. With that ruling FWS saved not only the grouse, but also probably the Endangered Species Act too.
“The Sagebrush Sea” is an ecosystem that spans vast tracts of the American west.
The New Yorker says, “A listing would turn what is already a hot political issue in sagebrush states into a firestorm, infuriating Republicans hostile to federal regulation and jeopardizing the Act, one of the most significant environmental laws ever passed.”
So how will the grouse and the ecosystem it inhabits be protected without the ESA? The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have announced a plan that will restrict energy and mining development across 165 million acres of their habitat, spread across 11 states.
The Wall Street Journal acknowledges the lack of an ESA listing for the bird as a defeat for Republicans in a staff Op/Ed:
“The Western Energy Alliance says BLM’s proposal will cost $5.6 billion in lost economic activity and 31,000 jobs, more than the group predicted an endangered species listing would burn up, as the BLM route features buffer zones around mating areas and stringent ‘disturbance caps.’”
That economic exploitation of public lands is where the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil and other energy and mining interests come into the story. They’ve begun a political push to see vast tracts of land across the west sold off by the federal government and opened up for energy development. Beyond all the nation’s heritage arguments, doing so wouldn’t make financial sense. Those lands support the $650 billion a year outdoor recreation industry, helping it create 6.1 million jobs while also providing the billions of dollars in royalties energy companies currently pay the federal government to extract resources from public property. Getting rid of those royalties along with the regulation that comes with using public lands is the motivating factor in all this.
So the sage grouse may have won this battle, but the war on public lands is not over. It’s going to be a big issue in the run up to the 2016 elections and one we plan on covering in depth. Make sure you see our previous coverage, listed below, and stay tuned for more.
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