The debate over how best to conserve the greater sage grouse has reached a fevered pitch in the past few months.  As Election Day and the subsequent lame duck session of Congress approach, stakeholders across the political spectrum are focusing their efforts on the ongoing National Defense Authorization Act conference.

Language in the House-passed version of that bill would provide some much-needed flexibility for western states to continue their unprecedented successful management of the bird without intrusion from the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land use plans finalized last year.

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Lost in the shuffle, though, is the fact that rather than bolstering ongoing cooperative state-based efforts to protect this bird, the federal plans impose restrictions that disadvantage our military and our ranchers and miss the real opportunity to help this species. 
Federal sage grouse management plans have increasingly impacted our military operations across the West. 

Yakima Training Center in Washington State has had to scramble to compensate for the plans’ impact on 77,000 acres of training range, and Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada just requested an additional 600,000 acres of BLM land in part to avoid more than eleven thousand acres of prime sage grouse habitat in their existing boundaries. 

These areas were already being protected through the same Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) programs that have been so successful for ranchers, and will now suffer the same unnecessary regulatory burdens due to the clumsy implementation of these flawed Resource Management Plans over the formal objections of Western governors.

The top threats to grouse habitat in the West are wildfire, invasive weeds like cheatgrass, and development.  All three are kept in check through the livestock industry’s responsible stewardship of more than 250 million acres of federal land. 

There is no substitute for livestock when it comes to wildfire fuel management, and research continues to show that targeted grazing is the single best weapon in the toolbox for battling invasive weed growth year-over-year. 

According to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), grouse populations are up 63% west-wide in the past two years alone.  That’s a result of almost two decades of partnership between states, ranchers and the federal government in the form of the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative, which has conserved almost 5 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat.  Viewed objectively, this is great news, and reason for any champion of true conservation to celebrate. 

Unfortunately, this success has been overshadowed by a coalition of agenda-driven “sportsmen’s” groups and anti-multiple use Members of Congress seeking to discredit and derail real conservation benefit.  Recently, these groups sent a letter to Capitol Hill demanding that Congress back down and allow the federal plans to dictate management to the states. 

A quick glance at the list reveals very few of these groups have any real connection to the lands they claim to care about – and virtually none actually involved in the business of conservation work.   

Make no mistake, these political groups don’t want access for sportsmen – if they did, they would be celebrating the tremendous strides in conservation we’re making across the west. 

Without the management that ranchers operating on federal land provide, those lands simply wouldn’t be as productive for users like hunters and anglers.  Real sportsmen understand this.

The true aim of these groups - along with their allies at the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project - is a western landscape devoid of human activity.  If we’re not careful, they’ll get exactly that. 

One year into the implementation of these federal plans, we know that the net result is less grazing, less wildfire fuel reduction, and more habitat loss. 

The families and communities that depend on the health of these rangelands simply can’t afford to allow environmental groups masquerading as “sportsmen” or outdoor companies looking for an image bump to dictate land management policy in their backyard. 

The resulting catastrophic wildfire fires and damage to the ecosystem will take generations to heal. 

Put simply, we’re winning this battle to conserve sage grouse habitat range-wide, and we’re doing it through partnerships and at the state and local level, not through top-down guidance from Washington.

In an election year filled with rancor and gridlock, legislators have a real opportunity to move the needle on this important issue by preserving the House-passed sage grouse language in the FY2017 NDAA.

Our lawmakers need to set politics aside and do the right thing for the West and for the sage grouse.

Ethan L. Lane is the Executive Director of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Federal Lands


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.