June 17 update to the story below: On June 16, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) withdrew the GOP amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have delayed a sage grouse listing.
When industries could be affected, politicians use legislation to block environmental laws or stall science-based decisions. Such is the case with sage-grouse survival as a Sept. 30 deadline approaches for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision.
Members of Congress are proposing amendments to at least two pieces of legislation to prohibit or at least delay a USFWS decision on whether the sage grouse should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Last week, a House appropriations subcommittee included a rider in its 2016 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill that would provide funding for sage-grouse conservation efforts in 11 western states. But it also requires the USFWS to delay its decision one more year.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, nine GOP senators have added an amendment to the National Defense Appropriations Act that would defer the sage-grouse decision for up to a decade.
The sponsors include Mike Lee (R-Utah), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), James Risch (R-Idaho) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
These aren’t the first Congressional attempts to interfere with the sage-grouse decision process.
One of the hundreds of amendments in November’s continuing resolution on the FY 2015 budget – dubbed the “cromnibus” – prohibits the USFWS from spending money on publishing notices and guidelines once the decision is made.
So, the decision process is still continuing, and USFWS Director Dan Ashe can announce his decision in September. But the Cromnibus won’t allow the decision to be implemented until Congress approves another budget.
While some cheer the amendments seeking to block a sage-grouse ruling, Congress doesn’t wield all the power.
A 2011 federal court settlement requires the USFWS to make a decision on the sage grouse by Sept. 30 after it balked at listing the bird in 2010. The agency is bound by the settlement to make a ruling by the deadline.
An ESA listing protects a species by protecting its habitat. In the West, development has been happening so fast that sagebrush habitat is already severely damaged and fragmented.
Biologists estimate that over the past 40 years, more than half of the sagebrush ecosystem has been lost to wildfire, sod-busting, mining, and suburban and energy development. As a result, only about 200,000 sage grouse survive where once there were 16 million.
So conservation efforts have to be fairly serious to make a difference.
Federal land management agencies, the states and private landowners have been working together since about 2010, putting conservation efforts in place avoid the need for a listing.
For its recent internal recommendation, a USFWS Species Lead Team of biologists and industry representatives considered both the ecological status of sage grouse and the socio-economic factors that conflict with or support its survival.
Biologists point out that preserving the sagebrush ecosystem helps more than 350 other species, including antelope, mule deer and elk.
For that reason, sportsmen’s groups including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Mule Deer Foundation have contributed significant resources to the sage-grouse conservation effort.
“The only way we can work around this whole issue of conservation is to bring in the partners and find a way to keep those industries on the landscape, keep our ranchers on the landscape who have these vast tracts of land that support sage grouse, and manage for sage grouse. We’ve got to find that balance,” said Species Lead Team biologist Pat Deibert. “If we don’t find that balance for the folks who make a living off the landscape, or the people who depend on it, there’s not a conservation plan that will work. It’s got to be a joint collaborative."
Ashe will use that information to make his decision and may conclude that current state efforts appear sufficient. If so, the sage grouse won’t be listed.
On the other hand, if he decides to list the bird and can’t publish guidelines or is kept from making a decision by Congress, the court settlement will be violated. At that point, the courts would take over.
Sportsmen's groups and conservation organizations are trying to avoid that.
“We’re going to try to get the (cromnibus) amendment taken off the books,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Amy Atwood.