Trump takes on the sage grouse

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - he sage Jac­ques Les­lie By Jac­ques Les­lie

Tgrouse can’t catch a break. The bird with a riv­et­ing mat­ing rit­ual and a 40-mil­lionyear lin­eage, which pro­vided sus­te­nance for Plains In­di­ans and set­tlers all across the Amer­i­can West, has long been im­per­iled. Ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists’ rough es­ti­mates, 16 mil­lion sage grouse once lived from the Dako­tas to north­east­ern Cal­i­for­nia. But hu­mans de­stroyed half the birds’ habi­tat, and only a few hun­dred thou­sand are left.

In 2015, the bird’s prospects seemed to im­prove. Sci­en­tists, oil and gas de­vel­op­ers, ranch­ers, min­ing com­pa­nies, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, hunters and fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials of both par­ties fi­nal­ized a multistate sci­ence­based plan to pro­tect it. Their agree­ment, which in­cludes the largest vol­un­tary wildlife con­ser­va­tion pro­gram in the na­tion’s his­tory, em­bod­ies all the at­tributes of deal­mak­ing that politi­cians give lip ser­vice to but rarely em­brace th­ese days: bi­par­ti­san­ship, col­lab­o­ra­tion, in­clu­siv­ity, trans­parency.

The plan re­quired a decade of study and ne­go­ti­a­tion. The sci­en­tists and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists wanted to pro­tect the bird and the sage­brush ecosys­tem; the en­ergy com­pa­nies and ranch­ers wanted to pre­vent sage grouse from be­ing listed as en­dan­gered, which would trig­ger highly re­stric­tive reg­u­la­tions. What re­sulted is a plan that ac­com­mo­dates min­ing, graz­ing and en­ergy de­vel­op­ment ex­cept where sage grouse are most con­cen­trated. In the two years since it went into ef­fect, sci­en­tists have seen signs that the sage grouse pop­u­la­tion is start­ing to re­bound.

Now all that is in jeop­ardy. In June, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke an­nounced a re­view of the plan to align it with Pres­i­dent Trump’s pro-fos­sil-fuel en­ergy and land-use poli­cies. The re­view sig­nals one last gulp at the fos­sil fuel trough be­fore re­new­ables make fos­sil fuels un­eco­nomic and cli­mate change makes them in­de­fen­si­ble. As Jim Lyons, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s as­sis­tant In­te­rior sec­re­tary for land and min­er­als man­age­ment, aptly put it, the re­view is “a thinly veiled and un­nec­es­sary at­tempt to open up im­por­tant habi­tat to oil and gas drilling.”

This is not a strictly red-ver­sus­blue issue. It pits Democrats and some Repub­li­cans against other Repub­li­cans and their al­lies in ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries. In re­cent months, gover­nors lead­ing a sage grouse task force cre­ated by the pre­dom­i­nantly Repub­li­can Western Gover­nors’ Assn. have writ­ten at least three times to Zinke ex­press­ing reser­va­tions about the re­view. “Whole­sale changes to the [sage grouse] plans are likely not nec­es­sary at this time,” ex­plained one let­ter. Among the sig­na­to­ries was task force co-chair Matt Mead, the GOP gov­er­nor of Wy­oming, where 37% of all sage grouse live.

The sage grouse is an “indi­ca­tor species.” Pro­tect it, and you pro­tect some 350 other plant and an­i­mal species, all denizens of sage­brush terrain — among them are elk, pronghorn, mule deer, golden ea­gles and pygmy rab­bits. Sage grouse can’t sur­vive with­out healthy sage­brush, which the plan fo­cuses on pro­mot­ing — and what­ever helps sage­brush helps all the other species in a Texas-sized swath of habi­tat that stretches across 11 states.

It’s note­wor­thy that when Zinke an­nounced his 60-day re­view (not much time to con­sider a plan that took 10 years to for­mu­late), he ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm for “in­no­va­tive plans and work­arounds” to “im­prove” sage grouse con­ser­va­tion. One idea is to aban­don the em­pha­sis on habi­tat in fa­vor of sim­ply main­tain­ing the bird’s pop­u­la­tion state-by-state. That ben­e­fits en­ergy de­vel­op­ers, who would no longer be stymied by pesky reg­u­la­tions min­i­miz­ing sage­brush dis­tur­bances, but it would be dis­as­trous for sage grouse. (It doesn’t help that sage grouse are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to count.)

“If you take out of the plan all the mon­i­tor­ing and man­age­ment that fo­cuses on habi­tat qual­ity,” Wilder­ness So­ci­ety se­nior coun­sel Nada Cul­ver, told me, “you have just dis­man­tled the plan.”

The other two “in­no­va­tions” Zinke cites are even more ill-ad­vised. One is cap­tive breed­ing of sage grouse, which is ex­pen­sive, tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing and ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing very few chicks. The pres­ence of farmed birds in flocks of wild sage grouse would also re­duce the species’ ge­netic di­ver­sity and in­crease its sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to dis­ease, fur­ther threat­en­ing its sur­vival.

Fi­nally, Zinke pro­poses con­trol­ling — that is, killing — some sage­grouse preda­tors, in­clud­ing coy­otes and ravens. This is a pre­scrip­tion for un­in­tended con­se­quences, such as a pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion among other preda­tors that are an even greater men­ace to sage grouse.

Here is how rad­i­cal the Zinke crowd’s ap­proach is: With­out the plan to pro­tect the sage grouse, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice al­most cer­tainly would have con­cluded in 2015 that the bird de­served an en­dan­gered list­ing. But it couldn’t have fol­lowed through be­cause a rider Repub­li­cans at­tached to the fed­eral bud­get bill in De­cem­ber 2014 — which is still in ef­fect — bars the ser­vice from act­ing on a de­ci­sion to list sage grouse. By free­ing Repub­li­can pol­i­cy­mak­ers from the re­straints im­posed by the En­dan­gered Species Act, that rider opens the way to evis­cer­at­ing the con­ser­va­tion plan with no wor­ries that an­other reg­u­la­tory process will im­pede them.

Machi­na­tions such as the rider — and the re­view — are a means of chip­ping away at Amer­i­can en­vi­ron­men­tal law, es­pe­cially the foun­da­tional En­dan­gered Species Act. What the ad­min­is­tra­tion, its al­lies and some con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans are af­ter, it ap­pears, is not just wider ac­cess to sage grouse habi­tat but an end to habi­tat — and species — pro­tec­tion it­self.

is a con­tribut­ing writer to Opin­ion.

David Zalubowski As­so­ci­ated Press

IM­PER­ILED sage grouse: a bird with a riv­et­ing mat­ing rit­ual.

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