Another Avian Showdown
BY PAT HILL
The sage grouse inhabiting Montana and several other western states are at the center of a political firestorm of sorts that pits environmentalists wanting the species protected under the Endangered Species Act against ranchers, miners, energy producers, and even state governments.
The battle over the bird is eerily reminiscent of another avian showdown between environmental activists and the wood products industry that focused on the Northern Spotted Owl. The owl gained Endangered Species status in 1990. That decision spelled a rapid regional decline in the industry after logging operations across more than 24 million acres of forest in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia were halted to protect the bird’s habitat.
Nearly seven times the acreage affected by the Spotted Owl decision, a total of 165 million acres, would be affected if the sage grouse receives ESA protection, which detractors say would virtually shut down grazing, energy development, and mining operations in those millions of acres designated as sage grouse habitat. Environmentalists counter that protection of the sage grouse, and more importantly, its habitat, is key to protecting other species, such as pronghorn antelope and pygmy owls, that reside in the same high desert steppelands and prairies where sagebrush thrives.
“The sage grouse is an ‘umbrella’ species, so it’s sort of the canary in the coal mine,” Randi Spivak, the public-lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Washington Post in May.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is the Federal agency designated to decide if a species should receive Endangered Species Act protection. The FWS has been considering listing several species of sage grouse as endangered since the late 1990s. In 2005, however, the FWS decided the bird did not warrant ESA protection. Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a lawsuit disputing that finding, and a federal judge sided with the environmentalists two years later while overturning that decision. By 2010, the FWS too reversed course regarding the sage grouse, stating that the species did deserve Endangered Species status. The FWS and environmental groups also agreed that the federal agency must propose rules regarding sage grouse protection by the end of September 2015, or again reverse course on their stance.
Meanwhile, western states like Montana, which has the largest land area that would be affected by the sage grouse’s listing under the ESA, are scrambling to ensure management of the bird falls under state and not federal jurisdiction. In the Treasure State, which hosts the second-largest sage grouse numbers in the nation, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) decided last month to end sage grouse hunting across most of the state as one effort to keep it ESA-free.
“This is somewhat of a tragic day,” Montana FWP Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte said in July. “We’re going to close a significant portion of the state to sage grouse hunting. Those areas aren’t likely to have sage grouse hunting ever again.” In a unanimous decision, Montana FWP commissioners voted to close sage grouse hunting in all but six counties in southwest Montana and 14 counties in the north-central area. Across southern Montana, the grouse are off-limits to hunters from Gallatin County all the way to North Dakota. The season would also be shortened from 60 days to 30. Bag limits would remain two birds per day and four in total.
Hunting, though, is not the primary threat to the birds: development, primarily in the energy realm, poses the greatest risk. Mining, as well as oil and gas extraction, pose risks to habitat and water in the sage grouse’s habitat, but ironically, “clean” energy via wind farms also poses a risk to that same habitat. Management at the state level can also be somewhat tricky when decisions about the sage grouse on the federal level change.
“Montana has a situation where two-thirds of the habitat is on private property where we have limited regulatory authority,” FWP Director Jeff Hagener said while addressing FWP commissioners in Missoula. “And industry isn’t willing to go very far until they know what the (federal) listing decision is. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes the decision to list, hunting is a moot point. Hunting is closed.”
“Hunting is the solution, not the problem,” Joel Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Association told the commissioners. “It creates a constituency that supports their conservation. We think it’s good to modify the season instead of closing it entirely.”
Montana’s elected officials in Washington, D.C., are also doing their best to keep management of the sage grouse at the state level. Sen. John Walsh (D-MT) introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress last month requiring the U.S. Depart-ment of the Interior to make public its report on their sage-grouse research before an ESA listing is made, and to allow possibly-affected states an opportunity to respond. It would also provide more funds for agricultural land easements that benefit sage grouse habitat. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) co-sponsored Walsh’s bill.
Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT), who faces off against Walsh for his Senate seat in the November elections, has co-sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives called the Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act. It would prevent a federal listing of the bird as long as states are working to protect it. Last month Daines also asked for more money from the National Resource Conser-vation Service for state sage grouse conservation programs.
In a letter to leading members of the Congressional subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Daines and fellow congressman Cory Gardner (R-CO), who, like Daines, is also making a bid to shift from the House to the Senate in November, made their case to let sage grouse management remain a state rather than a federal responsibility. The letter in part states that Montana and Colorado, along with other Western states, have “cooperated to produce locally-based conservation plans that will protect the sage grouse.”
“We believe that experts with local knowledge and experience in the region are best equipped to devise these conservation plans,” Daines and Gardner state in the letter. “Conservation is part of the American West’s heritage, and we take seriously our duty to be responsible stewards of the environment. Providing funds for state-based sage grouse conservation…would be a major step forward for sensible management of this species.”
The battle over the sage grouse will continue well into 2015 and beyond. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the 2015 Appropriations Bill in late July, and that bill includes a one-year delay on any further Endangered Species Act rulemaking for the sage grouse, and prohibits the FWS from admini-stratively establishing new or expanding existing wildlife refuges.