(EnviroNews Nevada) — Reno, Nevada — To the dismay and disappointment of environmentalists, conservationists and biologist alike, Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell announced on April 21, 2015 (which also happened to be Earth Day) that the bi-state sage grouse will not be making its way onto the endangered spices list (ESL). The announcement was made in front of a crowd stacked with “friendlies” in Reno, Nevada alongside Governor Brian Sandoval (R).
To standing ovation applause and cheering, Jewell pumped up the decision stating, “what a brilliantly beautiful sunny day, and a great day to celebrate the fact that the bi-state distinct population segment of the greater sage grouse will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Nice going everybody! Nice going.”
Jewell went on to add, “How many of you have had some hand, some meeting, some discussions around the bi-state sage grouse? Could you just raise your hands? Look at that!… This is epic collaboration. Let’s give all of you a round of applause.” She called the bi-state sage grouse a “conservation success story” that had “sound science behind it.” However, not everyone in attendance agreed with that assessment.
The bi-state sage grouse, or Mono Basin sage grouse as it is also known, is a distinct population segment of the greater sage grouse located exclusively in isolated areas of Nevada and California, and although the bird’s numbers have plummeted to an estimated 2,500, apparently, this is good enough for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). On the other hand, it is estimated that 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse, a distinct species of the bird located only in Utah and Colorado, remain in the wild, and that bird was listed as “threatened” by the agency in late 2014. Either way, these numbers are a far cry from the millions of grouse that once roamed and inhabited the Western sagebrush before settlers arrived.
Nearly all local media outlets took the bait following Jewell’s announcement, coming compliantly along in their reporting with the Earth Day victory march — slapping a smiley face on what was painted as a triumphant event for the states of Nevada and California.
Although most in attendance were associated with special interest groups involved in some way, shape or form with sage grouse habitat restoration efforts, EnviroNews producers heard from Nevada-based Native Americans on the scene who did not share the celebratory sentiment, and were concerned with the clear-cutting of old-growth Pinyon and Juniper trees from the surrounding areas in the name of “conservation.”
Michael Connor, California Director of Western Watersheds Project was quoted saying, “as recently as December 2014, the Service considered that the magnitude of threats faced by bi-state sage grouse was so high that the birds were assigned the maximum priority for listing.” Connor went on to add, “The Service’s backpedalling in claiming that unfinished management plans and voluntary, cooperative agreements will protect the species is untrue, and smacks of political expediency.”
Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians said, “Many of the most serious threats to the Mono Basin sage grouse remain unaddressed, and its tiny and isolated populations are under imminent threat of extinction… Today’s decision does nothing to resolve the problems facing this special population, it just punts the issue to the courts.”
WildEarth Guardians Biologist: DOI’s Bi-State Sage Grouse ‘Conservation Success’ Is ‘Window Dressing’
The monumental decision comes after a 15-year-long period of political and ecological battling over exactly what to do about the bird’s waning numbers. Special interest groups have had to deal with the looming possibility that grouse, and their habitat along with them, could receive protection under the ESA — but now ranchers, and oil, gas and mineral miners will no longer have to worry about the sage hen monkey-wrenching their development plans — at least in parts of Nevada and California.
A decision on the bi-state sage grouse had been ordered by April 28, 2015, and another decision on whether or not to list the larger population of greater sage grouse, spanning 11 states, is court-ordered to be made by USFWS by September 30 of this year.
So just why does everyone out West seem to care so much about whether this little bird gains protection under the ESA or not? What’s the big deal? Well, its quite simple really: This animated winged creature offers the ultimate stumbling-block to ranchers, miners, the energy industry and other developers seeking to reap a profit from the bird’s habitat.
A similar scenario can be observed with the ferruginous hawk in Wyoming for example, where there is a one mile buffer zone mandated by USFWS around nests from March 15 through July 31 wherein oil drilling, seismic blasting and other exploratory practices are put on hold due to this bird’s high nest abandonment rate when it is disturbed. Obviously these, and other bird nest buffers, are something that industry is not a fan of to say the least.
Realizing the very real threat to their bottom lines, the mineral, energy and ranching industries amongst others, have even signed on as partners and participants with the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) — a broad-based conservation program rolled out by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010. It’s a funny thing to imagine an oil company out there on the prairie sprinkling sagebrush seeds around in a desperate attempt to not see a bird listed under ESA, but this picture is not far from reality these days.
SGI, according to its own website, “applies the power of the Farm Bill to fund and certify voluntary conservation projects in sage grouse strongholds across 11 western states.” In other words, there’s big federal government money available for people to get their paws on — at least three-quarters of a billion dollars as a matter of fact — and while conservatives often complain about “big government spending” on one hand, many are glad to reach out the other hand to receive funds allocated for voluntary “restoration” programs.
Many of these free-will restoration, mitigation and “treatment” efforts have received heavy criticism from leading biologists, environmentalists and Native American activists alike, who say that hacking out old-growth trees to plant sagebrush is no restoration program at all, and merely trades one environment for another in an already heavily compromised terrain. Some voluntary “conversation” efforts have even been referred to as “ripoffs” and “scams” where companies or individuals have padded their pockets with biologically questionable activities in the name of habitat restoration. To add to this, there is very little transparency offered to concerned parties who would like to monitor how these Farm Bill funds are being utilized.
Further criticism comes from biologists over the continuation of programs that implement even more cattle grazing in grouse areas in an effort to eliminate cheat grass and other invasive plant species that choke out understory vegetation vital to the bird’s survival — techniques that these same scientists say have not proven to be effective at all.
Randi Spivak, Public Lands Director at the Center for Biological Diversity was on the record saying, “These birds are in serious trouble, and yet the government is doing nothing to restrict destructive hard-rock mining, geothermal development or off-road vehicle races… Half measures may delay extinction, but they won’t prevent it.”
Katie Fite, biologist and board secretary with the Idaho-based Defenders for Wildlife told EnviroNews it is unlikely that DOI has the “backbone” to list the greater sage grouse under the relentless lobby of ranchers, big oil and other industry.
The battle surrounding the greater sage grouse is shaping up as one of the hottest, and most under-reported environmental issues in the western United States. With the looming Sept. 30 court-ordered decision deadline, everyone will soon see if this decade-and-a-half long saga will result in Endangered Species Act protection for the chicken-like, flamboyant dancing bird.