Sage grouse listing decision has Congress aflutter
The most controversial bird in America could take a significant step toward new federal protections in the next two weeks, despite objections from congressional Republicans and the energy industry.
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is under a Sept. 30 court deadline to decide whether it believes the greater sage grouse needs protection as an endangered species.
The chicken-sized bird with a flamboyant mating dance flew into the national spotlight in the past year, amid GOP efforts to prevent a listing under the Endangered Species Act. The debate has brought a level of attention — and derision — to species conservation unseen since the 1980s and 1990s fight over the spotted owl.
Oil and natural gas drillers complain that the restrictions that go along with an endangered designation would cost billions of dollars, because the 11-state sagebrush habitat of the sage grouse is key oil and gas drilling land.
Despite wide disagreements over what the sage grouse needs — and what those protections would cost — the divergent interests in the debate actually agree that that an endangered listing should and could be avoided.
States, counties, federal land managers, farmers, energy companies and others have undertaken extensive efforts in recent years to conserve the species, and those actions could very well convince the FWS that further federal protection is unnecessary.
“I’m hoping for a not-warranted decision and for everybody to move ahead and implement these plans to begin the process of saving that ecosystem,” said Brian Rutledge, director for the Rockies region at the National Audubon Society.
“We’ve seen extensive efforts, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of conservation across the West,” added Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government relations for the Western Energy Alliance. “We in the West are successfully conserving the sage grouse, so a not-warranted decision would be proper.”
In that way, conservationists hope that the sage grouse could be a model for species preservation — with the mere threat of a listing spurring efforts that prevent such a decision, rendering it unnecessary.
The sage grouse was one of hundreds of species for which the federal government agreed to complete formal studies as part of a 2011 settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Along with the sage grouse, the FWS will announce by Sept. 30 the results of its research into two more species and whether a listing is warranted or not, and will decide whether to propose listings for four other species.
“Part of the problem is the agency itself,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said of the 2011 agreement, which he and others in the GOP call the “mega-settlement.”
“These are not court ordered settlements,” he said. “These are sue and settle agreements. They entered into this thing willingly.”
The stakes are high for conservationists as well. The sagebrush habitat, which once covered the West but has since been reduced dramatically, hosts a number of important species that also benefit from restoration efforts.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the FWS, is also hopeful a listing is not warranted.
“The efforts on the part of states, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, private landowners, nonprofit organizations, developers, energy companies, grazers, ranchers [and] cattlemen has been incredible,” she told reporters recently at an event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
Jewell recently announced that the New England cottontail rabbit, of “Peter Cottontail” fame, does not warrant a listing, thanks to the extensive habitat restoration efforts by states and private landowners.
She said the sage grouse should be treated similarly.
Jewell said she’s playing no part in the FWS’s process of determining the sage grouse’s status.
But even if the FWS determines that a listing is warranted, there is debate over whether it would be able to actually put the bird on the endangered species list.
That’s thanks to a provision added to a federal spending bill last year that prevents any money going toward a listing. A similar provision is in the proposed defense authorization bill, potentially tying up the bird’s fate even more.
The FWS is defiant. Lawyers there and in Interior are officially interpreting the law to say that officials can determine whether the listing is warranted, even if they cannot go further.
Come Sept. 30, that could set up a clash in which federal officials say the sage grouse needs protections and attention that Congress doesn’t want to allow.