What America thinks about sage grouse conservation
© WildEarth Guardians

Congressional efforts to block or delay Endangered Species Act protections, and to interfere with federal sage grouse plans, are wildly out of step with the American public. According to two new public opinion polls, the public expressed strong support for the Endangered Species Act as well as further sage grouse conservation, even in the face of economic trade-offs.

A nationwide poll by Tulchin Research indicates that 90 percent of Americans, and 89 percent of Westerners, support the Endangered Species Act. The popularity of the act extends across party lines: 82 percent of respondents identifying as "conservative" support the act.

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In order to get specific about opinions regarding an endangered species listing for sage grouse, you have to go back to a November 2014 poll of voters in Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana. This poll posed the following question: "If current state and local conservation plans are inadequate and fail to protect the species from the threat of extinction, would you support or oppose placing the sage-grouse on the Endangered Species list to prevent it from going extinct?"

Two-thirds of voters supported using the act across the four Western states. Even in ultra-conservative Wyoming, 52 percent of voters supported protections under the act for sage grouse. Support for sage grouse protection garnered a majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans alike in this poll.

The second new poll, conducted by Benenson Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies, targeted voters from counties with sage grouse habitat and sought opinions on the federal sage grouse plan amendments. In this poll, 61 percent of voters supported the federal sage grouse plans (with a little over half stating that they should include stronger protections), while only 28 percent opposed them.

Federal agencies will still need to come up with sage grouse plans that work. While public opinion polls can display the degree to which the public is comfortable with the concepts of sage grouse plans and Endangered Species Act listing, they can't measure whether the level of protection in federal sage grouse plans is biologically adequate. To quote Jeffrey Kluger of TIME magazine, "You can't poll a scientific fact. The speed of light is the speed of light whether 90% of people believe it or 25% believe it."

Westerners love wildlife, spend much of their recreation time outdoors and subscribe to a land ethic that views the extinction of native wildlife as a cardinal sin. Among ordinary folks, it's hard to find opponents of protecting endangered species, even out West.

But what opponents to Endangered Species Act protections lack in numbers, they make up in decibels. It's the ultimate case of the mouse that roared. This collection of well-connected politicians and corporate boosters has successfully amplified its anti-wildlife message so that some in Congress have been fooled into thinking that sound bites represent widespread public opposition to sage grouse protections.

So who are these people who have created the appearance of an anti-Endangered Species Act "movement"? The Tea Party is the current standard-bearer for this anti-wildlife agenda, seeking to stamp out the federal government and federal laws in all their forms, and make way for a brave new world where freedom to drive native species extinct becomes a birthright.

The Tea Party traces its roots in the West back to the "Sagebrush Rebellion" which began in the 1970s, a fringe movement seeking to turn over Western lands to state and local governments that would presumably be more compliant to their interests. This is the same movement that spawned Cliven Bundy and his livestock trespass that led to an armed standoff, and is currently backing efforts to sell off public lands across the West.

Its not-so-silent partners include the oil and gas industry and other robber barons who stand to profit from privatizing public land and would like nothing more than to do away with those pesky environmental protections.

Most Americans, by contrast, are horrified at the prospect of turning national forests and national wildlife refuges (perhaps even national parks) into private property, to be enjoyed only by those wealthy enough to purchase them. And as the polling shows, healthy habitats and abundant wildlife take precedence with the public over commercial and industrial uses on our public lands.

The overwhelming popularity of both imperiled wildlife and public lands notwithstanding, extremist ideologues in Congress haven't shied away from pushing legislation to get rid of public lands, any more than they have shied away from riders blocking sage grouse protections. A number of budget riders, some attached to defense spending bills, some creeping into Interior appropriations legislation, seek to block sage grouse conservation efforts. The sage grouse is hardly the only target: Wolves, lesser prairie chickens and other iconic species are targeted in congressional legislation seeking to gut endangered species protections.

I'm hardly an impartial observer; WildEarth Guardians and our conservation partners support the adoptions of federal plans scientifically rigorous enough to ensure protection of the greater sage grouse. If the plans fall short of halting population declines and habitat destruction, then clearly the Endangered Species Act will be needed. Either way, the public seems to be behind us.

A key finding in the Tulchin Research poll is that America overwhelmingly mistrusts Congress to make decisions about rare wildlife species once they reach the brink of extinction.

That's good news for those of us who are fighting to defend the science-based Endangered Species Act process against the tiny minority — corporate mercenaries and anti-environmental extremists — who are trying to hijack the political process to advance legislation that would surely cause the extinction of critically imperiled species. While some in Congress would play politics with extinction, conservationists are pushing for these decisions to be made on the basis of sound science, not politics, with the overwhelming majority of the public squarely behind us.

The scientists have spoken. The people have spoken. The long decline of the sage grouse speaks for itself, and for ailing Western lands still waiting for the policies necessary to restore them to health.

Congress might turn a blind eye to the plight of the sage grouse and turn a deaf ear to the scientific community, but it ignores the will of the people at its own peril.

Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.