A potential move by federal regulators to list a small bird as endangered has ignited debate over changes to the Endangered Species Act.
The greater sage grouse, whose habitat covers 165 million acres in 11 western states, is at the center of one of the most controversial species designations in years. The fight has drawn comparisons to the spotted owl, which critics turned into a symbol of the law’s excess in the 1990s.
“It’s an example of how listing decisions are being driven by litigation, closed-door settlements and court deadlines, rather than being guided by sound science and the best available data,” Michael Tadeo, spokesman for the natural resources panel, said of the sage grouse, which is about the size of a chicken and has a unique mating dance that has caught the attention of bird enthusiasts around the world.
“The sage grouse is a perfect example of why legislation is needed to update and improve the law,” Tadeo said.
Republicans in both chambers of Congress have introduced bills targeted specifically at blocking the sage grouse’s listing.
The bird’s population has fallen significantly in recent decades. The Center for Biological Diversity estimated that only a few hundred thousand birds survive, compared with its peak population of 16 million.
The sage grouse depends on sagebrush, which grows in an environment that is typically ripe for oil and natural gas drilling. Energy interests, along with their allies at the state and federal levels, are worried that an endangered listing would hurt development by placing onerous restrictions on drilling times and locations.
One study estimated that a grouse listing could kill up to 31,000 jobs and cost up to $5.6 billion in economic activity and more than $262 million government revenue annually.
Environmental groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 for not taking action to protect the sage grouse. The government settled, and agreed to reconsider a listing by September 2015.
Fred Cheever, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver, said he has seen these fights play out many times before.
“When one of these species comes along, it energizes the opponents of the Endangered Species Act to move for some legislative response,” he said. “But history suggests that they will fail.”
The spotted owl was one of the most publicized examples. The federal government determined that the Pacific Northwest logging industry hurt the owl’s habitat, even as companies warned its listing would decimate the industry.
The various sides of the debate are still arguing over the results.
“The spotted owl was protected, and the Pacific Northwest did not become the Rust Belt,” Cheever said.
“They ended up shutting down the industry in many parts of Oregon,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the top lobbyist for the Western Energy Alliance, which has served as the voice for oil and gas in the sage grouse fight. “And whole communities were decimated.”
“In this case, as with all the previous cases, it is both a distraction and a tragedy,” Cheever said. “In every situation, it is possible for economic activities to go forward largely unaltered and species to be protected.”
Sgamma expressed support for the House’s efforts to reform the law.
“You look at the very modest ESA measures that were passed by the House recently, and they’re really aimed at ensuring that the ESA is not abused by environmental groups,” Sgamma said, referring to provisions that seek to reduce settlements that commit the agency to consider listings.
The bill would also set new scientific standards for endangered species listings, including peer review and transparency. “They’re willfully ignoring good data, selectively picking and choosing the science that they use,” she said.
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“It’s good politics,” Cheever said. “Never has any of that political process led to anything approaching a solution for anyone.”
Brian Rutledge, who leads the Audubon Society’s efforts in Wyoming, called the proposed reforms “grotesquely political.”
Rutledge has worked to save endangered birds since before the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.
“The act is a vital and necessary part of conservation,” he said. “It is best used when we use it for proactive change, rather than as punishment or a total restriction.”
Rutledge said the sage grouse debate is a great example of the how the private sector and state governments can take steps to avoid endangered listings by working to protect a species.
Each of the 11 states where the sage grouse lives has a task force to try to protect it. Wyoming’s efforts are the most aggressive, and they still accommodate oil and gas producers.
“This is not a question of whether we can have industry or not,” Rutledge said. “The mineral is being retrieved and the bird is being protected.”
Sgamma said her members have taken hundreds of actions to protect the sage grouse, like avoiding their gatherings and limiting activity during mating seasons.
“Companies spend considerable amounts of money, resources and time protecting sage grouse,” she said.