Newspaper column: Let states continue efforts to protect sage grouse without listing

Greater sage grouse

Perhaps there is still hope that aggressive conservation and mitigation efforts by Nevada and the 10 other states where greater sage grouse range can stave off a listing of the ground-dwelling birds under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a decision that would have an economic impact on mining, agriculture, logging, oil and gas exploration, rights of way, electricity transmission lines and recreation.

The latest ray of hope comes from a decision by the Interior and Agriculture departments this past week to withdraw a proposal to list the bi-state sage grouse under ESA. In October the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate as threatened the distinct sage grouse population found along the northern California-Nevada border.

The original plan was to set aside nearly 1.9 million acres in Carson City, Lyon, Douglas, Mineral and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, as well as land in Alpine, Mono and Inyo counties in California, as critical habitat for the remaining 5,000 or so bi-state sage grouse.

Fish and Wildlife opened a comment period and then extended it when evidence came in that the bi-state grouse population was healthier than first reported.

The deadline for a decision on the bi-state grouse was April 28. The deadline for a decision on the greater sage grouse is September of this year.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell credited the decision to relent on listing the bi-state grouse to local efforts to preserve habit and limit impact. “What’s more, the collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development,” Jewell was quoted as saying in a press release.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said the “announcement highlights the critical partnerships that must exist for our conservation strategies to be effective and demonstrate that sage grouse and economic development can coexist in both the bi-state area and across the range of the greater sage grouse.”

When Sandoval makes the argument to not list the greater sage grouse he now has a 30-page “Sage-Grouse Inventory” published in March by the Western Governor’s Association listing various conservation efforts taking place in Nevada, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming to slap down on the table.

The inventory shows Sandoval has included $5.1 million in his fiscal year 2015-17 budget for sage grouse conservation efforts. Additionally, the Nevada Mining Association members have developed habitat conservation plans on 1.2 million acres.

Companies such as Noble Energy, which is exploring for oil and gas in Elko County, and other such companies are voluntarily restricting operations in ways that promote conservation.

Nevada’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council has been meeting regularly for several years, working on implementing and building upon recommendations from the Governor’s Sage-Grouse Advisory Committee. Various state agencies have spent over $7.4 million since 2012 on greater sage grouse conservation.

Elko County alone has spent more than $100,000 “to provide greater sage grouse management, conservation, preservation and rehabilitation measures, strategies and funding sources to … benefit sage-grouse without the loss of the county’s heritage, culture and economy.” None of that was federal money.

Efforts are being made across the West to fight the encroachment on sagebrush range by pinyon and juniper, which should require little more than a herd of goats, a few chainsaws or brush hogs.

Earlier this month lawmakers in Carson City were pressing forward with Assembly Joint Resolution No. 2, which would address one of the major causes of sage grouse population declines. The resolution asks Congress to remove or alter protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 for the common raven. Raven populations have exploded across the West because development of power lines and fences and pinyon and juniper give the birds higher perches from which to spy and attack sage grouse nests to eat the eggs.

“A known cause of decline in the sage grouse population is egg depredation by the common raven, and research conducted at Idaho State University has suggested that reductions in the raven population significantly increase sage grouse nest success,” AJR2 reads in part

Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Eureka Republican, said federal agencies permit killing a few ravens but not nearly enough.

Perhaps, all those coordinated efforts will sway Interior to give conservation efforts a chance.

A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Time for the states to fight back against ‘sue and settle’ environmentalists with their own litigation

Perhaps it is time for Western states to take a page from the tactics of environmentalists — namely, sue and settle.

Over and over, federal land agencies are eagerly caving in to radical environmental groups seeking to block just about any human endeavor that in anyway comes anywhere near any animal, bird, reptile, bug or minnow whose population is even marginally in decline.

A Mono Basin bi-state sage grouse

This past fall, the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated as threatened — under the terms of the Endangered Species Act — the bi-state greater sage grouse found along the northern California-Nevada border, supposedly a distinct population segment of about 5,000 remaining birds, even though the birds are legally hunted in both states.

That decision followed an October 2010 lawsuit filed by the Western Watersheds Project challenging grazing permits granted by the Bureau of Land Management.

Lesser prairie chicken

This past week the FWS designated as threatened the lesser prairie chicken, which are found in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico and Kansas.

Wild Earth Guardians sued the FWS in 2010 demanding rapid action on the listing status of 251 species. FWS agreed to determine whether to list the lesser prairie chicken by March 31. That is now a done deed.

Under the settlement, FWS must decide whether to list the greater sage grouse, which are found in 11 Western states, by September 2015. What do you think the odds are?

Kansas and Oklahoma plan to sue the FWS over the listing of the lesser prairie chicken.

Greater sage gouse

Though the lesser prairie chicken population dropped about 50 percent from 2012 to 2013, Jim Pitman, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, says the drop was largely attributed to drought.

“The important thing is the grassland is still there,” Pitman said. Once the grasslands regenerate from wet weather, the bird population will also increase, he said.

Among the topics of litigation the states should pursue are: Are the species really endangered? How scientific are the surveys? Have the federal agencies followed the law in deciding the listing or have they rushed to judgment? Has human activity in any way contributed to population decline or is nature merely taking its course?

Many of the causes of Western species decline have nothing to due with farming, ranching, oil and gas exploration or recreation, but with incompetent land management by the federal agencies, which have ignored fuel management practices and allowed vast wildfires to ravage the ranges. Additionally, there a lack of predator control, one of the biggest problems for most of the species in question, but a factor ignored by the feds.

Would you trust these people to save a species?

Then there are the multimillion-dollar efforts by federal bureaucrats to save species that nature would have let expire long ago, such as the Devil’s Hole pupfish. These minnows have been so managed, so manipulated that they can no longer truly be said to exist “in the wild.” The federal government even built a $4.5 million aquarium for them that matches the Devil’s Hole environs. Why not just put a couple in a fish tank and let nature take its course with the rest?

The 40-year-old Endangered Species Act is less about saving species than it is about building a huge bureaucracy of overseers. Less than 2 percent of listed species have been delisted. Once on the list they are on the list forever.

Of course the feds are not really serious about restoring species to their natural habitat. They may reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone but they’d not think to reintroducing them to Central Park in New York City.

What about herds of bison roaming eastern Colorado?

Jurassic Park anyone?

There is no balance, no logic, no rationale to the way feds are handling this law. There needs to be cost-benefit-ratio analysis used to determine when the harm to farmers, ranchers, oil and gas exploration and recreation outweigh the fleeting and futile salvation of a few birds, reptiles, rodents, bugs, weeds and minnows.

In fact, there appears to be a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause. The established federal religion is now the worship of Gaia.