Sage grouse hailed as job-killing weapon in ‘New War on the West’

— September 5, 2013

The Endangered Species Act is misused as a cash-cow for environmental groups and as a tool wielded by the Obama administration to obstruct agriculture, energy development and other key economic drivers in the Rocky Mountain West, according to members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, and witness testimony.

The greater sage-grouse was found to qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but was precluded from a listing due to higher priority species.

Four western House Committee members — including U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) — held field hearings in Casper, Wyo., and Billings, Mont., on Wednesday to discuss a potential Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the greater sage grouse — the iconic bird that is regarded as the best metric of the health of the western prairie ecosystem. The sage grouse now occupies just 56 percent of its historic range due to multiple pressures on the land, such as fragmentation and the loss of key sagebrush habitat.

In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the plight of the greater sage grouse does warrant protection under the ESA, but it was denied protections because the agency had too many other priority species to manage. U.S. Fish and Wildlife is due to make another ESA determination regarding sage grouse by September 2015, based on conservation goals outlined in this report.

Rather than work cooperatively with western communities to restore sage grouse populations, Lummis and her GOP colleagues on the committee insist the U.S. Interior Department employs “political science” to corrupt the true intent of the ESA.

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming)

In a press statement Lummis said, “The fact of the matter is that the ESA’s recovery rate hovers around 1 (percent), an unacceptable failure for a law touted as America’s premier wildlife protection statute. The ESA is not supposed to operate like the Hotel California, where species are listed anytime you like, but they can never leave. Recovery of species in true peril must be our priority.”

In his opening remarks in Billings, Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Washington) suggested that the science driving the Obama administration’s greater sage grouse ESA decision is deliberately flawed with an intent to serve environmental groups while punishing agriculture and energy economies in the West. The solution to this alleged abuse is to overhaul the Endangered Species Act of 1973 — an outdated law that is too easily manipulated to hurt western economies.

“This is simply not good public policy and it’s evidence that the Endangered Species Act needs improvement,” Hastings said.

Others suggest the Casper and Billings field hearings were a political show intended to intensify long-held anti-federal government sentiment among westerners, noting the sensational title of the oversight field hearings: “State and Local Efforts to Protect Species, Jobs, Property, and Multiple Use Amidst a New War on the West.”

Ed Arnett of the sportsmen’s advocacy group Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the “New War on the West” title was meant to breed conflict.

“The last thing we need is political grandstanding and empty rhetoric regarding an issue that sportsmen believe can be resolved to the benefit of all stakeholders,” Arnett said in a prepared statement.

ESA perspectives

Natrona County commissioner Robert Hendry testified before the committee in Casper, speaking in favor of overhauling the ESA. In an interview with WyoFile, Hendry said ESA considerations are slowing energy development and unnecessarily hurting the state’s economy.

“The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) is treating even the watch species — species of special concern — as if they were listed. And so you have prairie dogs that are stopping projects, you’re having sagebrush birds and those kind of things that are stopping projects,” Hendry said.

Oil drilling in the Douglas area requires surface disturbance to widen roads and build large drilling pads. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Asked to quantify a specific negative economic impact of the ESA, Hendry said, “I would say that right now it’s an impact because people can’t drill as fast as they want to.”

In an interview with WyoFile, Erik Molvar, the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, said the hearing in Casper was all about the idea that the ESA is costing jobs and creating headaches, “But the actual witnesses couldn’t actually show that there were jobs being lost and economic consequences happening as a result of the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming.

“That’s because, really, the Wyoming economy is not being affected by the Endangered Species Act,” Molvar continued. “There are booms and busts in the mineral industry. There are changes in cattle prices. These things affect the economy in Wyoming. The Endangered Species Act affects whether we have wildlife species survive in this state, but (it) really has no impact on the industries we have here.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, told WyoFile that it is difficult to measure the negative economic impact of an allegedly broken ESA.

“You know, there are not good studies that give me some broad numbers to work with. I can quantify with examples,” Magagna said, adding he believes that predator species that have been managed under the ESA — wolves and the grizzly bear — cause lower weight-gain and birthrate among livestock. “So that’s how, in our industry, we feel those economic impacts. They’re so difficult to quantify in terms of dollars on a statewide or west-wide basis.”

Magagna said regulations applied under the ESA are often too rigid to account for site-specific considerations. He said threshold stipulations should be replaced with “incentives” for landowners to properly manage for sage grouse and other species of concern.

Some sportsmen groups insist that grassroots collaborations between landowners, developers and others are working, and that the sage grouse is thriving in many areas. However there are concerns that proper management isn’t happening on some federal surface lands.

“Sportsmen-conservationists have a longstanding investment in maintaining productive populations of sage grouse and are working with the federal government to avoid an endangered listing,” said Ed Arnett, of the TRCP.

Sage grouse efforts

Jeff Meyer, managing partner of the Sweetwater River Conservancy, testified before the committee in Casper and described his company’s efforts to create a mitigation bank for sage grouse and other species. Under the model, energy developers that may exceed habitat disturbance limits can purchase credits that are in turn used to fund the preservation and improvement of sage grouse habitat on Sweetwater River Conservancy’s large parcels of private land.

Similar mitigation bank ideas are under consideration throughout Wyoming and the West as a way to allow energy development while also protecting threatened species.

“Today, the (Sweetwater River Conservancy) mitigation banks are proposed only on private lands. But it is possible, with supporting public policy, to imagine a time when a landowner, using private capital, could improve the habitat on the BLM grazing lands he leases and share the revenues from the mitigation banks with the federal government,” Meyer testified. “That’s another big idea for Wyoming’s landscapes and wildlife.”

After the core areas were first designated in 2008, the state and local sage grouse working groups made revisions.

One of the key strategies to restoring greater sage grouse populations and keeping the bird off the ESA list was developed in Wyoming: The sage grouse “core areas” strategy, first implemented by executive order by Gov. Dave Freudenthal in 2008. The core areas plan draws boundaries around prime sagebrush habitat in which surface disturbance activities are limited.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes the core areas strategy as part of the west-wide effort to save the bird, as does the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages much of the surface critical to the species’ survival. But there are questions about the effectiveness of the strategy in concept and in implementation.

For example, when the Douglas core area was established in eastern Wyoming it had already exceeded the 5 percent total surface disturbance limit. Since, oil and gas drillers have been allowed to build dozens of large well-pads, further exceeding the surface disturbance threshold.

In an earlier interview with WyoFile, Mary Flanderka of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said the Douglas core area was created despite not meeting the minimum surface disturbance area in order to protect the easternmost ranges of sage grouse habitat. She said a success in maintaining the bird here might be the best proof of the effectiveness of the core areas strategy.

“If there’s a place to figure this stuff out, the Douglas core area is the place to do it,” said Flanderka.

Critics say there was a lot of negotiating between the state of Wyoming and the energy industries when drawing the core area boundaries, sometimes creating sacrifice zones such as in the Powder River Basin. Intense coal-bed methane gas development in this region helped slash the Powder River Basin population by 82 percent, with no hope of full recovery. That population of greater sage grouse is a critical genetic link to sage grouse populations throughout the region.

“That’s the linchpin (population),” said Molvar, “and right now it looks very bad for that population because of the gerrymandering that happened in terms of how the sage grouse core areas were designated, and leaving out all the heavy populations in the center of the basin that the coal-bed methane (operators) wanted. That was a political trading chip that happened back at the beginning of the process in 2008 where those sage grouse were thrown under the bus.”

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. I have participated on the South Central sage-grouse group since its beginning. I truly believe that working together to save the grouse makes the most sense. But, it can not be business as usual. I have seen politics involved and worry that each time some development is wanted, politics causes and will continue to cause politicians to cave to accommodate. It will take willingness of all parties involved to change in order to save not only the grouse, but in general the quality of life in Wyoming that most of us want. Endangered grouse is another of the “canary in the coal mine” indicators like our failing deer population. Our voracious appetites for resources and business as usual will be our downfall. We better learn to do it right! We are selling Wyoming to the highest bidder.

  2. I’m going out on a limb here, but there is some evidence that the role of raptors such as Golden Eagles and various hawks , in addition to other terrestrial predators , in diminishing the Sage Grouse numbers has not been fully fledged. It appears in my Big Horn Basin that raptors play a big role .

  3. Extinction is forever so I support plans to protect the sage grouse and other species of concern.

    Somehow we’ve come to only worship money in this country… that’ll end eventually.

  4. Discounting the effects of drought on sage grouse core areas, if proper attention was given to promoting healthy grass conditions in sage grouse “core” areas, sage grouse populations would not be in jeopardy. Although sage grouse depend heavily on sagebrush for food, cover and nesting, few people are aware that sage grouse chicks need insect species that are associated with grass to provide necessary nutrition elements needed for survival. Insects associated with grass species provide Mother Nature’s colostrum necessary for sagegrouse chick survival. No grass, no insects, no chick survival.

  5. Philip White’s fine story on the Equal Access to Justice Act in WyoFile three years ago gives the lie to the claim that environmental groups are using the Act as a cash cow.

    https://www.wyofile.com/philip_white/green-fees-cheyenne-lawyers-crusade-on-us-legal-payments/.

    As for Cindy Lummis’ recent anti-ESA whinefest-public “hearing” in Casper, all she’s doing is continuing a deplorable habit of Wyoming politicians going back at least to August 1944, when Cliff Hansen and Millward Simpson held a big whinefest in Jackson to protest the Jackson Hole National Monument. Such hearings are pure propaganda and thereby pure liquid cow manure.

  6. To say Governor Mead does not agree with that committee is not accurate. From your story you can see the committee members and those giving testimony were criticizing a federal report. Presumably, that report is the “Sage-Grouse National Technical Team” report http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/co/programs/wildlife.Par.73607.File.dat/GrSG%20Tech%20Team%20Report.pdf. Governor Mead shares many concerns about that report. Jerimiah Rieman shared those criticisms with the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee yesterday.
    He also noted that Governor Mead and others from the State of Wyoming did work hard to support the “Greater Sage-grouse Conservation Objectives: Final Report” http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/sagegrouse/COT/COT-Report-with-Dear-Interested-Reader-Letter.pdf. That report does embrace Wyoming’s core area strategy.
    The reports are different and Governor Mead supports one while he has many concerns about the other, while acknowledging that elements of the NTT report are consistent with Executive Order 2011-5. He also certainly shares the committee’s concern about the potential harm a listing of the sage grouse could have on Wyoming’s economy and jobs here. That is why he has continued to work on a plan that will prevent a listing.

  7. Flanderka testified at an Environmental Quality Council hearing that she met with our local sage grouse working group 3 or more times in order to assure that a 350 gravel mine would get their DEQ permit in our sage grouse core area. She admitted changing area land designations so the mine would not exceed the allowable disturbance. This core area song and dance is nothing more than Wyoming’s attempt to make it look like they are actually doing something for the sage grouse. What a giant joke.

  8. Interestingly, Gov. Matt Mead’s staff disagrees with this congressional committee’s assessment that the Interior is using bad information or a flawed strategy in assessing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. This afternoon, I spoke with Jerimiah Rieman, natural resource policy advisor to Gov. Mead, who said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s conservation objectives, outlined in its February 2013 report http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/sagegrouse/COT/COT-Report-with-Dear-Interested-Reader-Letter.pdf embrace Wyoming’s core areas management strategy. Rieman said Gov. Mead’s concern is whether, or how, the core areas strategy is implemented in other states, and how the agency will measure conservation efforts outside core areas. — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief