One doesn’t often think of the United States military and the greater sage grouse in the same breath. But for a small number of politicians in Washington, linking the bird with the armed services has become a tactic for undoing solid conservation on millions of acres of national public lands, while attempting to erase the first few chapters of a great conservation success story.
Because of a whole slew of factors—habitat fragmentation, invasive species, wildfire, and energy development, just to name a few—populations of greater sage grouse, a bird once widely hunted during long seasons with liberal bag limits, have been on a worrisome path of decline. Indeed, things for the bird were looking dire enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considered listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act—a decision that would have had significant implications across the West.
But facing a listing decision led the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to revise dozens of land-use plans across the 11-state range of the grouse and prioritize the durable conservation of sage-grouse core habitat. At the same time, many of the states across the range crafted their own plans for non-federal portions of the bird’s habitat, and the Department of Agriculture prioritized funding for ranch and rangeland conservation efforts on private land. This mix of coordinated efforts proved robust enough that in September of 2015, the FWS decided that the bird did not warrant a listing.
Make no mistake, the conservation of core habitat included in the federal plans was the sine qua non of the agency’s unwarranted decision. Some lawmakers in Congress have bristled at the tough conservation initiatives that are required to keep the bird off the list, but they ensure that the bird continues to be managed by the states. So, in the summer of 2015, before the unwarranted decision had been made, several of those lawmakers made the case for including language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have given the states nearly unfettered veto authority over sage-grouse conservation plans on national public lands, while freezing the bird’s conservation status for a decade.
If this mashup of national defense and birds on the lek still has you scratching your head, consider this: The NDAA is pretty important, given that it keeps our military funded and functioning, and Congress has passed this bill every year for as long as anyone cares to remember—it’s as close to ‘must-pass’ as we have these days in Washington. So, the sponsors of this short-sighted effort made the tenuous claim that a listing of the bird would have dire impacts on military readiness, and they got it included in the House version of the NDAA in 2015. Thanks to a lot of common sense and distaste for including something so beyond the pale, the Senate did not include similar language in their own version of the bill, and the NDAA ultimately signed by the President did not include the offending language either.
Conservation groups quietly celebrated a victory that few Americans really heard about.
But bad ideas are pretty hard to kill in Washington, and this one’s no exception. Despite the fact that the bird was not warranted for listing, some in Congress are obsessed with undoing what might be the greatest achievement in Western public lands conservation in a generation. And we are gearing up for another run at keeping this bad language out of the NDAA.
The TRCP and many of our partners have already started the process of letting our lawmakers know that the best thing they can do for sage grouse is pretty easy: Simply see that adequate funding goes toward implementation of federal plans, that necessary resources go to the states, and that private lands conservation continues.
If implemented, these plans would be a windfall for the habitat of species like mule deer and pronghorns, not to mention a boon to sportsmen. And the plans keep the responsibility for the management of sage grouse in state hands. Undoing those conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing—bad news for just about everyone.
Article by Steve Kline