Residents of the 11 Western states that provide habitat for the greater sage grouse may have breathed a sigh of relief September 23 when the Interior Department announced that the chicken-sized bird would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But a closer look at what the Obama administration has in store for the region shows that the West’s sage grouse worries are far from over.
The much-anticipated announcement came in the face of a September 30 court-ordered deadline under which the Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) was to decide whether the ground-dwelling bird warranted federal protection under the ESA. FWS estimates that the sage grouse’s numbers have fallen from several million to 250,000 – 400,000 over the last few decades. The agency cites human encroachment, cheatgrass, an invasive species that has displaced sagebrush in many parts of the bird’s habitat, and “climate change” (never defined) as among the reasons for the grouse’s decline.
Instead of turning to the controversial ESA, the administration is sticking with a package of highly complex land management plans unveiled in late May. The plans, to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), cover the entire 167-million-acre sage grouse habitat and contain land-use restrictions every bit as rigid as could be expected under the ESA.
Indeed, far from getting a reprieve from the ESA, residents of the affected states — especially farmers, ranchers, and people employed in the oil, gas, and mining industries — will see their livelihoods jeopardized by the feds’ plans. Oil and gas wells, for example, will be clustered in groups of a half-dozen or more to avoid scattering them across the sage grouse’s habitat. Drilling near breeding areas will be prohibited during mating season and power lines will be moved away from prime habitat to avoid serving as perches for raptors that prey on sage grouse.
Under the 15 amended land management plans the feds are imposing in lieu of the ESA, ranchers will have a heavy burden to carry. As noted by Brian Seasholes of the Reason Foundation, ranches contain over 80 percent of the moist habitat – springs, streams, ponds, and seasonal wetlands – that sage grouse, particularly hens and chicks, depend on in the summer. “The new plans limiting where livestock can graze, creating large buffer zones for sage grouse habitat, and adding monitoring by the Bureau of Land Management may make life difficult for these ranchers…”
Fear of the ESA was so widespread that state and local officials in the region, together with businesses, landowners, university researchers, and conservation groups, spent years developing state conservation plans that would enable sage grouse numbers to rebound, without unduly burdening people’s ability to earn a living. Ranchers, for example, kept their cattle away from sage grouse breeding grounds, and oil and gas companies planted sage brush to provide shelter for the birds. These and other measures had already begun to bear fruit. The number of mating sage grouse males has increased 63 percent since 2013, according to an August report from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
None of this, however, would dissuade the administration from imposing federal restrictions, cooked up by Washington bureaucrats and Obama political appointees, on the hapless residents of the region, all the while claiming it was exercising restraint by not resorting to the ESA.
“Do not be fooled,” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told The Hill (September 24). “The announcement not to list the sage grouse is a cynical ploy…With the stroke of a pen, the Obama administration’s oppressive land-management plan is the same as a listing.”