‘Chicken-Sized Bird’ Shows Why Conservationists Don’t Always Agree

Many are working against having the sage grouse listed as an endangered species.

Male greater sage-grouse struts to attract females at a lek (breeding or dancing ground) near Bodie, California in April.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
June 1, 2014, 7:08 a.m.

When it comes to the sage grouse — a spiky-tailed bird once de­scribed as a cross between a sumo wrest­ler and Elton John in camo — con­ser­va­tion­ists agree on a lot, like pro­tect­ing the tens of mil­lions of acres it in­hab­its in the West and halt­ing the march of in­vas­ive spe­cies.

But, as the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is weigh­ing wheth­er to list the birds un­der the En­dangered Spe­cies Act, not all con­ser­va­tion­ists want to see the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice add the grouse to the rolls.

In­stead, con­ser­va­tion or­gan­iz­a­tions across 11 states ar­gue that by work­ing with miners, ranch­ers, state gov­ern­ments, and oth­ers who care about the bird — and the im­plic­a­tions of list­ing it as en­dangered — they can pre­serve sagebrush hab­it­at and help the sage grouse re­cov­er.

Oddly enough, many groups say their top goal is to avoid a list­ing.

“List­ing a spe­cies un­der the ESA is an ad­mis­sion of fail­ure,” said Kyle Dav­is, a con­sult­ant with the Nevada Con­ser­va­tion League and Wil­der­ness So­ci­ety in Nevada. “The hook is that we have this win­dow of op­por­tun­ity to do the right things now.”

The ex­act win­dow of op­por­tun­ity de­pends on which spe­cies of bird you’re talk­ing about. A de­cision on the great­er sage grouse, whose hab­it­at stretches across a huge swath of the West, cov­er­ing about 22 mil­lion acres and stretch­ing from the Dakotas in the east to Cali­for­nia in the west, from Montana in the north to Utah in the South (11 states in all), is ex­pec­ted in late 2015. The gov­ern­ment ex­pects a de­cision on a Nevada-Cali­for­nia spe­cies early next year, and an­oth­er spe­cies nat­ive to Col­or­ado, called the Gun­nison sage grouse, is ex­pec­ted later this year.

Re­gard­less of the spe­cies, though, con­ser­va­tion­ists say there’s ur­gency be­cause the birds are just one spe­cies af­fected by the de­struc­tion of the sagebrush steppe. The sage grouse, they say, is simply an in­dic­at­or of the hab­it­at and the wild­life in it.

“A chick­en-sized bird isn’t the most dy­nam­ic ral­ly­ing point,” said Luke Schafer of Con­ser­va­tion Col­or­ado. “But I would ar­gue “¦ the story isn’t the sage grouse. The story is the hab­it­at it lives in and everything else that lives there, in­clud­ing us.”

An­oth­er reas­on for avoid­ing a list­ing: If the gov­ern­ment goes for­ward, it’s un­clear what might hap­pen and what ap­proach fed­er­al of­fi­cials might take to con­serve the bird and its hab­it­at. That ex­plains why con­ser­va­tion­ists are sit­ting down with miners, nat­ur­al-gas com­pan­ies, ranch­ers, and state gov­ern­ments.

John Robison of the Idaho Con­ser­va­tion League poin­ted to the pos­sib­il­ity of un­cer­tainty about graz­ing fees, for ex­ample, if the grouse is lis­ted as en­dangered. “What we’re try­ing to do is provide cer­tainty for sage grouse and Idaho­ans,” Robison said.

That un­cer­tainty also gives con­ser­va­tion­ists at the state level an in­cent­ive to take the lead on form­ing plans to pro­tect the spe­cies.

“We were ini­tially skep­tic­al,” Robison said. “After par­ti­cip­at­ing in it for more than a year, we’re cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic, and we think we can achieve a bet­ter out­come by work­ing to­geth­er pro­act­ively among all these part­ners than by re­spond­ing de­fens­ively to a list­ing de­cision.”

Some call it a simple mat­ter of pre­serving state and loc­al autonomy. For ex­ample, a loc­al work­ing group that formed in 2012 is fo­cused on pre­vent­ing a list­ing of the Nevada-Cali­for­nia bird, which dwells not far from Lake Tahoe. Mem­bers of the group took part at a fed­er­al pub­lic hear­ing just last week to make the case against a list­ing, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial who at­ten­ded the event.

“It’s an im­port­ant part of the story,” said Ted Koch, the Nevada state su­per­visor for the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice. “They are fo­cused on con­ser­va­tion and are “¦ con­cerned about los­ing con­trol over loc­al de­cisions.”

But not all con­ser­va­tion­ists want to avoid a list­ing. One fac­tion be­lieves, as Robison and Dav­is do, that loc­al plan­ning be­fore a list­ing provides a bet­ter op­por­tun­ity for con­ser­va­tion, while an­oth­er camp thinks the list­ing is what makes the dif­fer­ence.

The West­ern Wa­ter­sheds Pro­ject, for ex­ample, is in the lat­ter group. It felt the the vari­ous fed­er­al and re­gion­al plans were in­ad­equate, ob­ject­ing in par­tic­u­lar to pub­lic-lands graz­ing, which the state work­ing groups of­ten ac­com­mod­ate. Mark Salvo, now with De­fend­ers of Wild­life, who brought the ini­tial pe­ti­tion to list the grouse more than dec­ade ago and has been work­ing on the is­sue since, sees in­con­sist­en­cies in the pro­cess that state-level con­ser­va­tion­ists prefer.

“It’s funny, some­times the vari­ous fed­er­al agen­cies and the state work­ing groups will all claim that they’re work­ing to­geth­er when it comes to put­ting to­geth­er these strategies,” Salvo said. “But what emerges [is that] these plans are of­ten very dif­fer­ent, cer­tainly in­con­sist­ent con­ser­va­tion schemes.”

The dis­agree­ment over wheth­er to list might di­vide con­ser­va­tion­ists but those di­vi­sions don’t amount to much, they say. Ul­ti­mately, the goal is the same.

“There will al­ways be dif­fer­ence of opin­ion, but it isn’t a stick­ing point,” Schafer said. “Our fo­cus as a com­munity is on en­sur­ing con­ser­va­tion.”

What We're Following See More »
LEGACY PLAY
Sanders and Clinton Spar Over … President Obama
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama became a surprise topic of contention toward the end of the Democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Sanders had challenged the progressive bona fides of President Obama in 2011 and suggested that someone might challenge him from the left. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she said. “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” replied Sanders, before getting in another dig during his closing statement: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

THE 1%
Sanders’s Appeals to Minorities Still Filtered Through Wall Street Talk
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It’s all about the 1% and Wall Street versus everyone else for Bernie Sanders—even when he’s talking about race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, he needs to appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters in coming states, but he insists on doing so through his lens of class warfare. When he got a question from the moderators about the plight of black America, he noted that during the great recession, African Americans “lost half their wealth,” and “instead of tax breaks for billionaires,” a Sanders presidency would deliver jobs for kids. On the very next question, he downplayed the role of race in inequality, saying, “It’s a racial issue, but it’s also a general economic issue.”

DIRECT APPEAL TO MINORITIES, WOMEN
Clinton Already Pivoting Her Messaging
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It’s been said in just about every news story since New Hampshire: the primaries are headed to states where Hillary Clinton will do well among minority voters. Leaving nothing to chance, she underscored that point in her opening statement in the Milwaukee debate tonight, saying more needs to be done to help “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market” and immigrant families. She also made an explicit reference to “equal pay for women’s work.” Those boxes she’s checking are no coincidence: if she wins women, blacks and Hispanics, she wins the nomination.

THE QUESTION
How Many Jobs Would Be Lost Under Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer System?
11 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 11 million, according to Manhattan Institute fellow Yevgeniy Feyman, writing in RealClearPolicy.

Source:
WEEKEND DATA DUMP
State to Release 550 More Clinton Emails on Saturday
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.

Source:
×