DENVER — A successful Republican move to stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s bid to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act may be a sign of things to come in the long-running battle between environmentalists and economic developers across the West.
A GOP policy “rider” tucked into the massive $1.1 trillion spending bill debated by Congress last week cuts off any money for the administration to move on the grouse issue, and with Republicans set to take full control of the House and the Senate next month, that’s unlikely to be the last such move.
After years of watching federal bureaucrats, environmentalists and judges decide Western land-use and endangered species policy, Republican and Western lawmakers are drawing a line in the sand over the wide-ranging, chicken-size bird, which threatens to upend economic development projects across the rural West.
“It probably does send a signal to the WildEarth Guardians and some of these other groups that Congress isn’t going to sit back and let their litigation decide these issues,” said John Swartout, senior adviser on the sage grouse to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The Wilderness Society warned in a statement last week that the grouse was a “feathery harbinger of the health of public lands across the West,” and that the spending bill falls short in a number of key environmental areas.
“These last-minute riders have not seen the light of day and have not been properly vetted by the committees who oversee these critical public lands issues,” said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for lands for the group.
SEE ALSO: Obama administration sued by Colorado’s Gov. Hickenlooper over Gunnison sage grouse
The inclusion of the sage grouse language caused a stir as the 1,603-page spending bill moved toward passage, but in fact the wording has been there since July, when it was approved by a House Appropriations subcommittee as part of the Interior appropriations bill.
Rep. Mark E. Amodei, Nevada Republican, introduced the rider to prohibit the Interior Department from using funds to list two species of sage grouse — the Gunnison sage grouse and greater sage grouse — until Sept. 30.
“More time is needed to convince the Department of the Interior, which controls the vast majority of the sage hen habitat, to undertake the necessary work to conserve the resource and prevent the [Endangered Species Act] listing,” said Mr. Amodei in a July 9 statement.
“Interior needs to stop ignoring its financial responsibility while simultaneously attempting to saddle state and private landowners with the obligation to fund fuels management and habitat-restoration projects that are absolutely the responsibility of the federal government,” he said. “Until that happens, funding for any potential ESA rule with respect to the sage hen should be withheld.”
It may be too late for the Gunnison sage grouse — the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as threatened last month — but not for the greater sage grouse, whose habitat spans 11 Western states. The Obama administration is under a court order to make a decision on the greater sage grouse by Sept. 15.
Environmentalists were apoplectic after discovering the rider, warning that it would likely remain in future appropriations bills, especially given the looming Republican dominance of Capitol Hill.
“This legislation is a death warrant for these iconic birds of the West,” said Randi Spivak with the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “This is a blatant giveaway to the oil and gas industry and other profiteers that are perfectly content to see endangered species vanish from the Earth as long as they get to wring a few more dollars out of our public lands. It’s a destructive and cynical piece of legislation.”
Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said the ESA “is designed to keep politics out of the way of protecting our most imperiled wildlife, and it’s been very successful.”
“Politicians aren’t wildlife experts, and they should leave the management of our most imperiled wildlife to scientists who know what they’re doing,” Mr. Molvar said. “Political ploys like these, interfering with common-sense wildlife protections, are why sage grouse are headed for extinction today.”
But Brent Boydston, vice president for public policy at the Colorado Farm Bureau, said a sage grouse listing would have a devastating impact on many of the 25,000 farmers and ranchers who belong to his organization, not just the oil and gas companies that have been prominent in the fight.
“When there’s a listing under the Endangered Species Act, threatened or endangered, you’re always going to have the land-use restrictions, and with the land-use restrictions come direct impacts to farming and ranching and grazing,” Mr. Boydston said.
Mr. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, made good on his promise to challenge the federal listing on the Gunnison sage grouse, filing a notice of intent Friday to sue with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Fish and Wildlife Service director Daniel M. Ashe.
The Gunnison sage grouse’s habitat falls across southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah, with 86 percent of the population in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin. State officials argue that local efforts to boost the bird’s numbers have been succeeding without federal intervention.
“The Service underestimated the level of protection that has been provided via federal, state, local and private conservation efforts to conserve sagebrush habitat in the Gunnison basin,” says the notice filed by Assistant Attorney General Lisa Reynolds.
Amodei spokesman Brian Baluta said the congressman was concerned that Interior Department officials were focused on oil and gas development and failed to assess the impact of other threats to the sage grouse, including wildfires, wild horses and invasive grasses.
“You could list the bird, and it’s not going to do anything to save the habitat, because you’re still burning it up,” Mr. Baluta said. “So you’re going to end multiple use in the West, you’re going to end the livelihood of a lot of people, and you’re not even going to do anything to save the habitat and the sage hen.”
Environmentalists may be upset with the rider, but Mr. Boydston said he was relieved to see Congress become involved.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re just yelling at nobody, saying, ‘Hey, there are very real implications to an ESA listing, and a lot of times you feel like nobody’s listening,’” Mr. Boydston said.
“With Congress holding their hand up and saying, ‘Hey, hold on, we need to look at this a little bit more,’ hopefully the messages are starting to get out that there are problems with the Endangered Species Act. It’s badly in need of reform. Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg about Congress getting that message.”