Congress Weighs In On the Sage Grouse

checksandbalancesunclesam

From where I sit, different folks have different thoughts about how the idea of protecting endangered species should work in real life. Congress passed ESA in 1973, that is, a year before I started my 40 year career in forestry. Since then we’ve had the build up of a confusing set of regulations and bureaucracy with a tendency toward a lack of openness and transparency in the use of scientific information.

I would think it would be legitimate for Congress to weigh in on these additions.. but maybe not.

Here’s a link to an article in the Denver Post this AM. Dear me.. I see a legitimate use of “checks and balances”in the “.. others see only “confusion.” Oh, well. My headline would have been.. “elected officials strike back on management by NGO’s and courts (unelected).”

A federal budget bill has added more confusion to sage grouse fight
By Mark K. Matthews
The Denver Post

WASHINGTON — All it took was one sentence in a bill 1,603 pages long.

But those 87 words were enough to sow more confusion in a years-long fight over the Gunnison sage-grouse and the greater sage-grouse — two rare birds in Colorado and the West.

The trigger for the chaos, and a new round of hostility between environmentalists and landowners, is a massive spending bill passed by Congress this month and signed into law last week by President Barack Obama.

The novel-length legislation funds the federal government through next fall, but also includes a raft of favors for special interests, including one provision that allows individuals to donate more money to partisan political conventions.

Among the so-called “riders” attached to the bill was a one-sentence provision that prohibits the Department of the Interior from changing how it classifies the rarity of the sage-grouse.

More to the point, it prevents the Interior from taking any new steps to list the Gunnison sage-grouse or the greater sage-grouse as “threatened” or “endangered” — two designations that come with a laundry list of restrictions that would affect homebuilders and energy companies.

Though the rider sounds straightforward, activists and some policymakers said the move only adds another layer of uncertainty to a battle that has ping-ponged for years between Denver and Washington, as well as inside the court system.

“It does throw the whole West in limbo,” said Erik Molvar of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

and

Fish and Wildlife will continue to collect data and conduct analysis as it relates to listing” the greater sage-grouse, said Jessica Kershaw, an Interior spokeswoman.

The stance has earned the applause of environmentalists, even if the future remains uncertain.

“It’s an act of congressional arrogance, substituting its wildlife expertise for the expertise of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which actually has trained professionals,” said Molvar.

With both sides sticking to their guns, a future listing for the greater sage-grouse could depend on whether Congress votes next year to continue its prohibition.

Given the Interior’s commitment to study the bird, there remains the opportunity for the administration to quickly issue a listing if the legislation expires — even if that window is short.

Wow.. Congress passing laws Molvar doesn’t like is “arrogant”, because they are those darned elected officials and not wildlife biologists. I wonder how many wildlife biologists were in Congress when they passed ESA ;)?

4 Comments

  1. One of the issues with the rider on Gunnison sage-grouse, is that it prohibits USFWS from working on a 4(d) rule that would recognize many of the conservation efforts being implemented with ongoing activities. As stated by Interior Secretary Jewell: “The consequence of this rider is that it prevents the Service from finalizing a rule that would provide certainty to landowners, giving them assurance that they can continue economic activities compatible with the conservation of the species, such as properly managed livestock and ranching activities.” http://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/news_releases/12-17-14%20Sage%20Grouse%20statement%20final.pdf

    As a Forest Service biologist, I believe it is beneficial when we have things in place that streamline ESA compliance in terms of applying conservation actions that benefit species and I was hoping that a 4(d) rule would be finalized that would include habitat restoration activities we’ve been implementing, along with our partners including private landowners, for Gunnison sage-grouse.

  2. An interesting, if skewed, perspective on the “legitimate use of checks and balances”.

    “Wow.. Congress passing laws Molvar doesn’t like is “arrogant”, because they are those darned elected officials and not wildlife biologists. I wonder how many wildlife biologists were in Congress when they passed ESA ;)?”

    Let’s take that logic another step… How about “Congress passes law saying cigarettes are good for you”… Even better: “Congress legislates that Earth really is flat after all”. But those examples aren’t all that different from “Congress legislates what scientific determinations about sage grouse will be.”

    Knowledge is often frightening to bureaucrats, whether they’re members of Congress or USFS administrators, which is one reason they frequently employ “checks” on that information, and make sure it “balances” with their own self-interest.

    I do think you’re right on, about this point though: “Since then we’ve had the build up of a confusing set of regulations and bureaucracy with a tendency toward a lack of openness and transparency in the use of scientific information.”

    • Great comment Guy. If you ask me, it’s pretty obvious that Congress passing the ESA in 1973 because our nation’s native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct, is much different than Congress attaching riders to must-pass spending bills claiming a specific animal is ‘recovered’ or that a specific bird shouldn’t be protected under the ESA.

  3. I think the problem here is that Congress doesn’t want anyone to know whether sage grouse should be listed. Suppression of knowledge is arrogant and dangerous.

    They should let the listing process play out, and then if they want to make a decision based on information they have the power to do that. It would be nice if they would let the ESA process work to the point where they can tell how much listing really affects anything, and then let the God Squad decide if that is acceptable, and only then step in they disagree.

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