(EnviroNews Wyoming) — Douglas, Wyoming — On April 21, 2015 Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) Sally Jewell appeared in Reno, Nevada to make a pivotal Bi-State Sage Grouse Announcement: No protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the bi-state distinct population of the greater sage grouse. The move was hailed as a “conservation success” in front of a crowd stacked with “friendlies” — largely partnered members in the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI).
SGI, and other industrial, educational and business partners have been ravenously dipping their paws in the federally allotted cookie jar for the past several years in an effort to keep the flamboyant dancing bird off the endangered species list — a specially allocated cookie jar containing some three-quarters of a billion dollars for restoration, mitigation and “treatment” projects.Jewell said the efforts surrounding the bi-state grouse constituted one of “epic collaboration” and nearly all local and national media outlets bought into the notion hook, line and sinker.
While DOI, SGI, ranchers, miners, the oil industry and media outlets alike went along with the celebration parade over the news, activists, biologists and environmental groups complained to EnviroNews that all biological indicators suggest the population is in big trouble and should receive federal protection.
Michael Connor, California Director of Western Watersheds Project said, “As recently as December 2014, the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] 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.”
EnviroNews USA news chief Emerson Urry had the opportunity to discuss the divided bi-state issue with Erik Molvar, biologist with the rising environmental group WildEarth Guardians, as part of a larger interview on the greater sage grouse. An extract from the interview transcript is as follows:
Emerson Urry: Going into what they call these “conservation successes” like we saw about a week-and-a-half ago, jumping over to Nevada and California into the bi-state population, as it’s referred to of the greater sage grouse — Secretary Jewell came out — it was pumped up as this massive “conservation success.” They decided to not list that population to the ESA. How do you read into that? What’s your takeaway? Is that actually a conservation success, or is it all smoke and mirrors?
Erik Molvar: That’s basically window dressing. You know, the reality is that they’ve treated 46,000 acres with their 40-plus million dollars, and there’s 1.8 million acres of proposed critical habitat for the bi-state population. So, all these victory stories and these victory dances around these voluntary conservation agreements and these millions of dollars that are spent, are just affecting a tiny segment of sage grouse habitat, while meanwhile on the rest of sage grouse habitat, you lack the kinds of hard required protections that are going to prevent continued habitat degradation and continued population collapse.
Urry: So, getting into the actual population numbers of the bi-state, we’ve read a few different reports — some of them point to the numbers being as low as 2,500 birds, others say there’s 9,000 birds out there, and from what we understand, just in late 2014 the bird was basically being referred to as having the highest priority for being listed. How do we get from there in late 2014 to where we are now with DOI not listing it? What does the population actually look like there, and again just how do we go from the highest priority for listing to not even threatened?
Molvar: You know, the biggest populations in the bi-state area only have a few hundred breeding males, and so we’re talking about less than a thousand total grouse in the largest populations. The smallest population has one lek with one breeding male in 2014. And so, there are six of these populations. Some of the populations seem to be stable. Most of the populations seem to be declining. The threats remain. There aren’t regulations in place. We’re going to see continued declines, and basically this is a big PR stunt to call this population a success story, and to call this a stable population. This population is just as small, and just as close to the brink of extinction as it was ten years ago when everybody was calling it an emergency situation.
Urry: I want to back to these programs — these voluntary efforts that are going on as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative. We hear a lot about what ranchers are doing to try to mitigate some the damage. Whether that is working or not is a different story. What does the energy industry actually do in those regards? I mean, do we have oil companies out there on the prairie sprinkling around sage brush seeds, or what do we actually see in regards to the energy industry in those efforts?
Molvar: Well, the energy industry would love to have sage grouse conservation turn into a pay-to-play kind of a proposition because they would find it much more profitable to go in and destroy the key sage grouse habitats in a rush for oil and gas, and then throw a few million dollars on the side for habitat mitigation, knowing that the sage grouse populations would decline in the end, but they’d get the PR value out of spending the money. That’s really not a viable solution. That’s something that we’re seeing in this area of Wyoming in particular, and it’s a real threat to sage grouse.