A ground-dwelling, chicken-sized bird, best known for its elaborate mating rituals, is front and center in a conflict pitting the economic viability of broad swaths of the rural West against the strict land-use controls of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
By September 2015, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is to decide whether to list the bird as “threatened” or “endangered” under the ESA. Recognizing the ESA’s “critical habitat” designation, with its often severe land-use restrictions, could impose serious hardships on ranchers, farmers, energy developers, home builders, construction companies, and other segments of the West’s rural economy, state and local officials are joining forces with residents of the affected area to stave off an ESA listing.
The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is the largest grouse in North America. Its range is in the sagebrush country of 11 states in the western U.S. and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. It was known as simply the sage grouse until the Gunnison sage-grouse was recognized as a separate species in 2000. Estimates of its population in the U.S. range from as low as 200,000 to as high as 500,000, according to FWS. According to some estimates, their numbers may have been as high as 16 million a century ago.
Loss of habitat is the most frequently cited reason for the bird’s declining numbers. And providing enough habitat for the grouse’s population to rebound poses a real problem in sagebrush country. A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says the greater sage-grouse needs a 3-to-5-mile buffer zone between its breeding area and what is referred to as “human development.” “This is a bird that requires a large, unfragmented landscape, and one of the great things about the West is that we still have a lot of that,” says FWS spokesman Theo Stein (Washington Times, Nov. 26). The grouse’s breeding grounds are known as “leks,” and carving out a 3-to-5-mile buffer around leks scattered throughout 11 states will set a lot of land off limits to “human development.”
Indeed, the USGS report says roads, fences, telephone poles, and oil and gas drilling fields interfere with the bird’s ability to move around. But Denver attorney Ken Holsinger, a specialist in land-use and ESA-related issues, disputes many of the USGS’s findings, which he believes are rooted in outdated data. “[T]he continued assumption that human activity directly causes population declines is seriously misplaced,” he tells the Washington Times. “Moreover, the notion that such huge buffers are required is based upon outdated information. For example, the impacts of oil and gas development today (due to horizontal drilling, pipelines, and new technology) are much smaller than the kind of intensive development of yesteryear that much of these studies are based upon.”
Legacy of the spotted owl fiasco
On its website, www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/, the FWS says it “supports efforts to keep the greater sage-grouse off the endangered species list by protecting its habitat to increase sage grouse numbers.” Such assurances ring hallow for many who remember how the FWS, in the mid-1990s, destroyed countless timber-dependent communities in the Pacific Northwest in an effort to “save” the northern spotted owl. At the time, the FWS claimed that listing the owl under the ESA was necessary and it sought to protect the bird’s habitat by sharply curtailing timber harvests in old-growth forests. The FWS ignored critics who pointed out that the spotted owl’s problems were rooted in the migration of larger, stronger barred owls into the spotted owl’s territory. Nearly two decades later, the FWS acknowledged the decisive role of the barred owl, but by that time the damage its policies had inflicted on the region’s rural communities could not be undone. (www.cfact.org/2014/01/14/feds-save-spotted-owls-by-killing-barred-owls/)
The spotted owl fiasco is a grim reminder of how much destructive power the feds can wield under the ESA. In early November, the FWS listed as “threatened” the Gunnison sage-grouse of Utah and Colorado, a move that prompted Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) to say he would challenge the decision in court. There are an estimated 5,000 Gunnison sage-grouse, so the land-use restrictions mandated to protect its habitat pale in comparison with those expected to be imposed to protect the habitat of hundreds of thousands of greater sage-grouse.
Environmentalists traditionally support rigid enforcement of the ESA, and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity is demanding that the FWS raise the ESA designation for the Gunnison sage-grouse from “threatened: to “endangered.” But Greens who are backers of renewable energy may not be happy with the measures adopted to protect the far more numerous and widespread greater sage-grouse. In addition to oil and gas drilling, giant wind farms and solar panel arrays may also have to make way for the bird’s habitat.