A ground-dwelling bird, no larger than a chicken and best known for its males’ exotic mating rituals, is at the center of the most comprehensive land-use plan ever imposed by the federal government.
Facing a September 30 court-ordered deadline on whether to list the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in late May unveiled an unprecedented, multi-state scheme to protect the bird’s habitat. The plan covers 165 million acres (an area the size of Texas) in 11 Western states No less than 64 percent of that land is owned by the federal government, 31 percent is in private hands, and 5 percent is state land. These lands contain valuable natural resources, including oil and natural gas as well as precious metals.
States affected by the administration’s greater sage grouse plan include California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
The Obama administration’s plan, which some hope will prevent the greater sage grouse’s listing under the ESA, calls for substantial restrictions on farming, ranching, mining, and oil and gas extraction. In an irony lost on no one, it will also lead to a curtailment in the affected area of energy development favored by the administration: land-intensive wind and solar power.
Along with predation, invasive species, and human encroachment, FWS cites “climate change,” which is says “may amplify cheatgrass impact and affect sagebrush persistence and distribution.” (Cheatgrass is a noxious weed that can invade grasslands and displace native plants.) FWS is conspicuously reticent when it comes to explaining how the climate is changing; much less what is causing it.
Effects of Washington’s Land-Use mandates
The Obama administration’s strategy for protecting the greater sage grouse includes some 14 different plans, all of which were developed, and will be overseen, by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Written by BLM career bureaucrats and Obama political appointees, BLM’s plans represent an effort to micro-manage, by federal fiat, the economies of the affected region. Its land-use restrictions may turn out to be every bit as onerous as those resulting from the bird’s being listed under the ESA.
Among other things, BLM’s strategy requires oil and gas wells to be clustered in groups of a half-dozen or more to avoid scattering them across the sage grouse’s habitat. “Drilling near breeding areas would be prohibited during mating season, and power lines would be moved away from prime habitat to avoid serving as perches for raptors who prey on sage grouse,” notes Bette Grande, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute and a former North Dakota state legislator.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Colorado-based Western Energy Alliance, told the Associated Press “The economic impact of sage-grouse restrictions on just the oil and natural gas industry will be between 9,170 and 18,250 jobs and $2.4 billion and $4.8 billion in annual economic impact across Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.”
Ranchers, too, are in the crosshairs of the of the BLM strategy. “Livestock grazing and habitat conservation go hand in hand, and ranchers have historically proven themselves to be the best stewards of the land,” said Brenda Richards, president of the Public Lands Council and a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “If sage grouse are designated for protection under the ESA, many ranchers may no longer be allowed to graze livestock on or near sage grouse habitat…The decision would not only destroy the ranching industry in the West, which is the backbone of many rural communities, it would also stop the conservation efforts currently underway by ranchers.”
State Plans Ignored
Fearing the worst from the feds, state and local officials, businesses, and even some environmental groups spent the last few years developing plans in their respective states, in the hope of preempting interference from Washington. If the Obama administration’s plan is allowed to stand, their efforts will have been for naught.
Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, noted that his state has already spent $62 million on greater sage grouse conservation and science, including plans that “take into account local environments, communities, and economies.” “The federal plans, by contrast, are a top-down approach that ignores the work that states have already done,” he was quoted in the Washington Times (May 28) as saying. “They do not represent a viable, workable option for the states leading up to the September 30 deadline.”
Congress Set to Clash With White House
Shortly after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the administration’s plan, Rep. Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, inserted language into the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, barring the listing of the greater sage grouse under the ESA. Bishop’s provision also prohibits the federal government from imposing any greater sage grouse-related management plans that go beyond what the states have already adopted, a move that effectively nullifies the BLM scheme. The House approved the measure and it is pending in the Senate. If the Senate includes Bishop’s language in its FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, a confrontation with the White House will be inevitable.