Wyoming strives to convince the federal government that its efforts to preserve sage grouse are enough to keep the bird off the list of endangered species. Federal protection worries many in the state who use the sagebrush country to make a living (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish )

By Scott Streater, E&E reporter

(Originally published 8/4/2014 by Environment & Energy Daily. Contact E&E for republication permissions.)

An oil and gas industry group has launched an advertising campaign warning that a federal endangered listing for the greater sage grouse would have dramatic economic impacts across the West and undermine already effective state and local conservation programs.

The ad campaign orchestrated by the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance also blames “activist lawyers” representing environmental groups for a legal settlement that requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to propose listing the grouse by September 2015, before state and local plans have had a chance to fully make a difference.

Fish and Wildlife in 2011 agreed to a settlement with WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity that requires FWS to issue binding listing determinations for roughly 250 candidate species through 2018.

The WEA ad campaign will feature online and radio advertisements running over the next three months in six Western states — Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — that attack the legal agreement and the science driving a possible listing decision.

A video that’s part of the ad campaign is titled “Environmental Lawyers. Bad Science. Jobs Lost.” In it, WEA highlights a published quote attributed to Kieran Suckling, the Center for Biological Diversity’s executive director and founder, in which he states that the center uses “lawsuits to help shift the balance of power.”

“No science. Lawsuits to shift the balance of power away from hardworking Westerners,” a voice-over states. “Turns out it’s not about protecting the wildlife, is it?”

Federal and state leaders are desperately trying to save the greater sage grouse, fearing a federal Endangered Species Act listing would cripple the energy, farming and ranching industries across the bird’s 11-state Western range.

“Never before has such a wide-ranging and numerous species been seriously considered for listing under the ESA,” Jack Ekstrom, WEA’s chairman, said in a statement. “We are running this ad campaign to educate Westerners about the greater sage grouse and the threats on the horizon to local economies.

“Given the sizable range of the sage grouse’s habitat, a listing would be devastating across the West. Vast energy resources would be off limits and jobs lost,” added Ekstrom, whose WEA represents more than 400 energy companies that collectively account for nearly a quarter of the nation’s natural gas and 21 percent of its oil production.

Environmental groups scoffed at the latest ad campaign, accusing the industry group of employing scare tactics to try to derail efforts to save the grouse.

“Enough with the fear-mongering,” Mark Salvo, director of federal lands conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, said in an email. “We know what we’ve got to do to conserve sage grouse and how to do it. Now let’s get it done for grouse, Western communities and our future prosperity.”

Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians, also defended the 2011 legal settlement Fish and Wildlife agreed to with Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, noting the settlement “resolves a backlog of missed deadlines” stretching back, in some cases, for decades.

“Local and state agencies have literally had 20 years to stem the precipitous decline of sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken, but have failed to do so in large part because of the widespread increase in oil and gas drilling on public lands, and irresponsible grazing practices,” Cotton said in an email. “Federal protections will help local and state agencies rein in out-of-control destructive practices, not undermine those efforts.”

She also took a swipe at WEA, accusing the alliance of “trying to wipe away the truth” by mounting “a misinformation campaign.”

“The biggest threat to the Western way of life is the oil and gas industry: polluting our air, destabilizing our climate, pockmarking our public lands with filthy, leaking oil and gas wells, and destroying our most iconic native wildlife and their habitat,” she said. “These ads do nothing more than try to shift the blame from the very industry most responsible for that destruction through misinformation.”

Ongoing debate

The WEA ad campaign is the latest in the increasingly political debate over whether a federal ESA listing would help the bird recover.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), among others, have argued that state and local partnerships with landowners who agree to apply sage grouse conservation measures to their properties are working and that an ESA listing could undermine those efforts.

Montana Sen. John Walsh (D) last month introduced a bill, S. 2575, that would beef up support for programs that work with ranchers and other private landowners to protect the grouse and its habitat (E&E Daily, July 11).

Some Western leaders have called on the Fish and Wildlife Service to delay a final ruling to allow more time to complete state- and locally driven conservation partnership programs with landowners.

The House Appropriations Committee last month approved a fiscal 2015 spending plan for the Interior Department and U.S. EPA that includes a provision that would delay by one year a decision to list the sage grouse under ESA (E&ENews PM, July 15).

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) have filed legislation to push back a listing decision by at least a decade (Greenwire, May 22).

The ad campaign comes just weeks after WEA released a study asserting that current federal regulations governing oil and gas development in greater sage grouse habitat are more than adequate to protect the bird and that an ESA listing is unnecessary.

The study, conducted for the alliance by Broomfield, Colo.-based SWCA Environmental Consultants, concluded that National Environmental Policy Act requirements applied to oil and gas drilling operations in sage grouse habitat have had a significant effect in reducing impacts to the bird and must be strongly considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service while it evaluates whether to list the grouse as threatened or endangered (E&ENews PM, July 23).

The study found that oil and gas drillers implemented a total of 773 conservation measures mandated in land-use plans, environmental assessments, environmental impact statements and other “decision records” across 18 Bureau of Land Management field offices and national forests covering 68,000 square miles of public lands with sage grouse habitat — an average of 6.5 per drilling project.

Ekstrom, the WEA chairman, said in his statement on the new ad campaign that blaming the oil and gas industry for any problems facing the greater sage grouse is similar to blaming logging for the plight of the endangered northern spotted owl.

“The spotted owl case was similar,” he said. “It wasn’t logging, it was predation by the barred owl.”

Some have argued that the common raven and other natural predators are the bigger threat to greater sage grouse, just as the barred owl is a major threat to the smaller northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

The Interior Department last year announced plans to shoot about 3,600 barred owls in the region to prop up the spotted owl (E&ENews PM, July 23, 2013).

“Development and management save species; listing them does not,” he said in the statement. “We will see the same threat on an even larger scale across the West if the sage grouse is listed.”

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