Opinion

Sage Grouse Defies Feds, Environmental Lobby; Increases By Two-Thirds

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason

Viva La Sage Grouse Revolucion! This plucky bird has the nerve to defy the federal government and environmental lobby by increasing its population by two-thirds since 2013, according to data in “yet-to-be-published research,” according to a story in Greenwire.

This is a huge deal because the Interior Department has a September deadline to decide whether to propose to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act across its 11 state 165 million-acre range. If listed, the sage grouse will have enormous impacts on otherwise normal and legal forms of land and resource use, such as cattle ranching, oil and gas extraction and mining.

Unfortunately, and the penalty-based approach to sage grouse conservation being pursued by the Interior Department, and favored by the environmental lobby, will actually harm the bird by punishing landowners who harbor grouse. Landowners are the linchpin because they own upwards of 80 percent of the wetland habitat grouse can’t survive without, 31 percent of all habitat, and are the critical piece for implementing conservation measures on federal land, which constitutes 64 percent of grouse habitat.

In order to justify listing the sage grouse, the feds and environmental lobby have aggressively pushed a narrative in which the bird is headed for extinction, despite that the population was estimated be 200,000-500,000. Now, the new data, compiled by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, increases this estimate to 334,000-835,000.

Many scientists and others have long pointed out a well-known fact; sage grouse populations naturally fluctuate around rainfall patterns, driven by the 10-year El Nino cycle, in their semi-arid sagebrush habitat. When rains are good, sage grouse habitat improves and populations increase; when rains are poor, sage grouse populations decline. “Improved weather conditions are mostly responsible for the increased numbers,” Tom Christiansen, sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, stated to Greenwire.

Proponents of listing the grouse contend that the recent sage grouse population trend is downward. In April, proponents released a report claiming sage grouse populations declined 56% between 2007 and 2013. “Our research should and must ring alarm bells,” Edward Garton, report lead author and emeritus professor of biology, said. “These numbers indicate to us that if significant protections aren’t established, this important bird and the entire sagebrush steppe region face irreparable harm.” Others also chimed in. “This report provides definitive evidence about the fragile state of the greater sage-grouse,” Ken Rait, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Lands Project, stated. He also said the report “adds to a growing body of evidence that should encourage the [Obama] administration to establish broad conservation measures for this at-risk ecosystem.”

A closer look at the report reveals a very inconvenient truth. “State wildlife officials said the report cherry-picked just the years of decline—2007 marked a major peak in sage grouse populations, and 2013 could be a trough, they said,” according to a story by Phil Taylor in Greenwire.

It should not be surprising the Garton report cherry-picked data to push for draconian federal land and resource use controls for sage grouse. After all, the report, which was not published in a scholarly journal, was bought, paid for and published by Pew Charitable Trusts, an $810 million behemoth that made over $111 million in grants in 2013 and constantly pushes for more federal environmental regulation.

Edward Garton, along with report co-author John Connelly, are part of a coterie of scientists who aggressively advocate for increased federal control over the sage grouse. Garton and Connelly are the lead co-authors of a scholarly 2011 study that is the most frequently cited study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2013 Conservation Objectives Team report, according to a legal challenge to the quality of the report’s data brought by a coalition of 19 counties in Colorado, Nevada, Montana and Utah, along with ranching, mining and energy trade associations. The COT report is so crucial because it serves as the foundational document for the service on sage grouse, including whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

The challenge to the COT report and other federal sage grouse reports states:

The agencies are relying on an insular group of scientist-advocates who deviate from providing credible, accurate scientific data to advancing policies they personally support. This small group of scientists have interlocking relationships as authors of the Reports, authors of the studies used in the Reports, peer reviewers, editors, and policy advocates. Their conflicts of interest include receiving multi-millions of dollars from the agencies while supposedly developing independent studies. When faced with conflicting science, they simply ignore studies that don’t fit their bias.

Not surprisingly, Garton and Connelly are also two of the eleven scientist-advocates who sent a widely-publicized letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging them to enact ever more harsh land and resource use controls for sage grouse.

Fortunately, there is a much more successful, open and transparent approach to sage grouse conservation that is 180 degrees away from outdated, penalty-based, one-size-fits-all, top-down, scientifically unsound and ultimately unsuccessful approach to sage grouse conservation taken by the Interior Department, environmental lobby and scientist-advocates.

States, municipalities, industry and the Sage Grouse Initiative (a project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) are charting the course to an innovative and successful approach that is cooperative, incentive-based, flexible, site-specific and scientifically robust. Robert Bonnie, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had this to say:

“I’ve been involved in rare species conservation efforts for two decades, long before I became Undersecretary and before I came to USDA. That gives me some perspective on the importance of the work that has been done under the Sage Grouse Initiative…There’s never been an effort that’s been this comprehensive, this scientifically based that’s been so successful in working with partners on the ground to produce real conservation for the benefit of a rare species…This is historic. I think the work of the Sage Grouse Initiative is truly path-breaking. Of course the agency can take some credit for that but of course none of this happens without the relationships and partnerships on the ground…most importantly our landowner partners, the ranchers that have been involved in this. I think it’s a true testament to the opportunities of voluntary conservation, of getting the incentives right and of getting the relationships right on the ground.”

John Swartout, Senior Advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the state’s point person on sage grouse, offers this perspective:

Let me stress this point: Colorado has worked closely with many partners across the spectrum, including local governments, landowners and conservationists. A decision by Fish and Wildlife to list the greater sage grouse puts at risk all this cooperation and threatens to pull apart the very coalitions that – to date – have made enormous progress is conserving the sage grouse and its habitat. Our partners will be left wondering: What was the point of all this effort? We’ve taken enormous steps to avoid a listing and the accompanying federal intervention only to have our efforts answered with a listing. That kind of outcome not only jeopardizes our progress with the sage grouse, but any other work we’re doing to conserve these treasured species in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain west.

So if you want objective information on sage grouse, coupled with innovative, successful approaches to conserving this magnificent bird, look to states, counties, industry and the Sage Grouse Initiative, not the Interior Department, environmental pressure grouse and scientist-advocates.