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Opinion: More action, less talk, on sage grouse conservation

Greater sage-grouse. PHOTO COURTESY USFWS.

Look out when politicians get involved in endangered species conservation

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — If I were a sage grouse, I’d be heading for the hills right about now, because there’s nothing scarier than a “task force” of politicians sitting around discussing your fate.

The task force will be co-chaired by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, neither one of whom ever saw a gas-drilling proposal they didn’t like.

They will, according to a press release from Hickenlooper’s office, look for ways “to collaboratively identify actions that could preclude the need to list the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.”

It would be nice to believe that executive level participation might lead to meaningful conservation measures, but a more cynical interpretation of that political jargon might be, “How can we avoid taking any real, meaningful measures to protect a fast-disappearing species that once ranged widely across the sagebrush ocean of the interior West while making sure that energy company and real estate developers have their way with the land?”

Since sage grouse already qualify for listing, why not follow Endangered Species Act guidelines and procedures to recover the species? If it was good enough for bald eagles, it ought to be good enough for sage grouse.

Here’s more polit-speak from the press release:

“We are pleased to join Gov. Mead in working with other Western states to find ways we can protect this majestic, iconic Western species,” Hickenlooper said. “This task force will work with federal agencies and existing groups to find strategies states can employ to keep this species vibrant and off the threatened and endangered species list. We have our work cut out for us, but we are optimistic we can make great strides with this effort.”

“The goal of the Endangered Species Act is not to add to the list, but to protect the species so they never make it to the endangered species list,” Mead said. “I appreciate Governor Hickenlooper, the 9 other western governors and the Director Abbey joining us to create a state-led plan that will balance conservation of the sage-grouse with development and job creation.”

Right. Just like Mead wants to take the wolf off the endangered species list so so that it can be hunted back to the edge of oblivion in Wyoming. The balance has already been tilted heavily in direction of development and extraction — that’s why sage grouse are in trouble.

All that fancy talk won’t bring the birds back from the brink. The reality is that we already know exactly what needs to be done, not just conserve what’s left of sage grouse populations, but to restore them, as the Endangered Species Act requires. It’s pretty simple, really: Stop fragmenting habitat with new gas drilling leases and protect critical breeding and feeding areas. Lip service isn’t going to save the endangered birds, but immediate action may.

If the federal and state governments are serious about sage grouse preservation, they should assemble a panel of conservation biologists and sage grouse specialists. Let that group develop a plan based on the  best available science and then endorse it wholeheartedly. Otherwise, the formation of this task force should be seen for what it is — a cynical effort to replace the safeguards and assurances of the Endangered Species Act with meaningless political promises.

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11 Responses

  1. I keep waiting for these so called ones, to come up with a solution to what could be termed: “The vanishing common sense of the Politician[s], that once permeated the breed”.

    I take it the “Morning Photos” are on hiatus?

  2. I saw many hundreds of healthy groups of sage grouse in 2011. peacefully coexisting with oil production pads, improved gravel roads, and OHV usage. The important thing I learned was that protecting the “leks”, or mating areas during certain times of the year is critical, and easily accomplished when land managers have specific biological study data on their area of control. Funding these studies and supporting the land managers in implementation of appropriate protection protocols is far more important than generalized listings with vague direction and broad calls for closure and unspecified protection schemes. This species is in danger from radical environmental extremists – no one can support or live with the policies of exclusion and politics of fear preached by the environmental left-wing. They prefer rhetoric and socialist control to action taken by the responsible departments. I long for the day when they become an endangered species. I predict we will not waste any money bringing them back.

    • We KNOW where the leks and important feeding grounds are, and we know exactly where gas drilling activities (and OHV use; you mentioned it, I didn’t) are having an impact. So why do we need a political task force? The specific biological data you mention has been available for many years.

      And if sage grouse do so well with those industrial and recreational uses, why have their populations plummeted so much in the past few decades.

      • There are many factors that play the decline in the SG population. Oil and gas are not in those factors. In fact Wyoming is the leading state for SG in large part due to the energy companies.

        • Huh? What is it, 1960? So we just go ahead and throw out the research that tells us exactly the opposite because you say grouse are thriving because of energy? Sure, Wyoming has roughly 54% of the GS-g population that’s still alive; but geez Brandon, the bird has been declining in large part because energy development fragments their habitat, and they require a minimum of 3 miles around leks, an absence of vertical structures that serve as raptor perches, no roads with thousands of truck trips and dust overlay. Can someone please tell me what’s wrong with leaving some sage undisturbed? Must we continue to choose sides that send us on a collision course? Wyoming has led the way by adopting the core habitat strategy while developing energy. Let it work, give the birds and all of the other species that depend on sagebrush freedom to roam and a chance. Brandon, do you by chance like mule deer? Guess what? They’re in decline too.

          • Dave, you and I both now research is not always accurate, that is why the call it research. I spend an average of 250 to 300 days a year and see SG and deer everyday I am out there. Some areas I have spent over 20 years in. Those areas birds and deer are down too. Funny thing is there is not a well, rig, or anything that has to do with energy in sight. Other funny thing is the ground is not over grazed and some not grazed at all. Many days I don’t even see another person. Numbers are just declining. Best way to build on the population is improving habitat and working with the people who make a living off the land. Where do you plan on getting the funds for this? Take another 5 trillion in debt? Oh and by-the-way I do love the deer and SG too. Take care Dave.

  3. Gov. Mead has demonstrated some flexibility in a few instances and recently recommended that the Absaroka Front be spared from industrial scale drilling. It can’t hurt for neighboring states to actually talk to one another. We do know where the core habitats lie and where most of the leks (used for thousands of years) are. We also know that lek counts continue to steadily decline and there’s no peaceful coexistance with energy development. What is a healthy population? Birds that we happen to see feeding on the edge of a rig service road? “Lots” of birds on a lek? How many is a “lot” of sage grouse? I’ve seen Sage-grouse in very compromised habitat on the Pinedale Anticline and elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing well – they were just feeing young with grasses and insects on the edges.The thing is data doesn’t lie and the ESA is doing its job in a perverted way – everyone is interested in recovery, even if many could care less about the bird. So, give sage grouse the three mile circle around leks that science says they need and consider why the entire sagebrush ecosystem is in peril – keep in mind that sage grouse are an indicator species and what they’re telling us isn’t what some want to hear.

    • Dave, it certainly can’t hurt, but I still get worried when I hear about politicians forming a task force, and when the press release doesn’t acknowledge that we already have a lot of good science on sage grouse habitat.

      • I agree Bob, and your article is important for stimulating this sort of discussion. In a perfect world the politicians wouldn’t be involved – science would determine the right course for a recovery plan. But, Wyoming, with 54% of the grouse population, and Colorado, with another stronghold in the Piceance Basin are both highly dependent on fracking gas revenue. If the bird gets listed, a lot of energy projects get seriously sidetracked. It’s absolutely true that we have great science on sage grouse. What we lack is political will.

  4. Important and well written article Bob, thanks.

  5. As an aside here, has anyone read the article on “Ozone Pollution” by Mark Jaffe of 2-26-12 @the denverpost.com? Food for thought.

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