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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision not to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was perhaps the greatest collaborative conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management—but it didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The years of planning, monitoring, research, and coordination among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and many other stakeholders have also resulted in a new model for conservation.
But rather than celebrate a great achievement, stakeholders at both ends of the special-interest spectrum have proclaimed that listing the bird would have been a better choice. Some in the environmental community have argued that far more should have been done to strengthen protections for the species and believe a listing is still warranted. Meanwhile, some industry proponents and members of Congress have cried out that a listing would have been better than the “draconian” federal overreach they see in the BLM’s amended land-use plans that will impact a majority of the bird’s remaining range.
All of this rhetoric makes for good soundbites and headlines, but would we really be better off? Is it possible that compliance with the proactive conservation measures needed to avoid a listing is actually a harsher reality than a listing itself? Let’s look at the facts about what could have happened under the law.
Under a listing scenario, anyone with plans for federal land designated as sage-grouse habitat would need to comply with all the restrictions and conservations actions under the ESA and consult with the FWS on every future project, extending the timeline. This would apply to businesses, the BLM, the states, and private landowners—even those who have received funding or other resources from a federal agency for a project on their land. Compared to this case-by-case consultation process under a listing, the BLM land-use plans provide a firm set of guidelines to give every industry and community stakeholder the certainty they need to plan for the future.
Buffers and Caps
The BLM plans prescribe buffers and caps for the disturbance to breeding ground areas from human activity and development. One opponent of the plans has promoted the idea that an ESA listing doesn’t come with these buffers and disturbance caps. It’s true that the Act itself doesn’t mandate these restrictions, but immediately following any listing, there would be a designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, which could include even more stringent buffer zones. It’s very doubtful that a post-listing plan would be weaker than the current federal plans.
Obviously, sportsmen would lose the opportunity to hunt sage grouse if they were listed, but the concept of ‘take’ under the ESA also extends to the habitat of the listed species. Under Section 3 of the ESA, ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Aside from hunting them, any activity that would disturb or harass the bird, or alter its habitat in a negative way, would technically be a violation of the ESA and could be subject to penalty under the law. If you don’t believe me, just ask the timber industry what ‘take’ meant to them after the northern spotted owl was listed.
At Home and Afield
With a listing, mandatory enforcement of ESA restrictions extends to all critical habitat, which would include, at the least, everything currently considered priority habitat areas on public land, plus at-risk habitat on private lands. Regardless of ownership, any take of sage grouse or habitat on these lands could be subject to prosecution under the law, with the exception of those already enrolled in conservation agreements with the FWS. This includes applicable programs under the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative or Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), of which there are several million acres already enrolled.
The Best Path Forward
So, does a listing of the greater sage grouse really sound better than implementing the current federal and state plans? I’d say that this rhetoric is really just a last-ditch effort to thwart change and maintain business as usual. Perhaps some of the largest companies and landowners in the region could afford to comply with the ESA, but would this have been the best path forward for the West as a whole? Of course not.
Clearly, and without question, a listing scenario would be far more time-consuming, expensive, and disastrous for the Western economy than implementing the proactive conservation plans that have already been finalized. And that’s not to say that we’re settling for the devil we know. The decision not to list sage grouse required that strong federal plans, complemented by solid state plans and extraordinary voluntary efforts exhibited by private landowners, be developed with assurances that they’d be implemented. And all of this needs to stand up in court.
The next step should be to make sure everyone does what they said they would do to implement their plans. And Congress needs to ensure full funding for implementation of conservation measures in the federal plans and continue supporting the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to benefit these birds. Let’s not get distracted by attempts to dismantle the collaborative efforts that got us where we are today.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The House is not in session this week. The Senate will conduct legislative business, except on the Veterans Day holiday this Wednesday.
On the road again, indeed. Late last week, House members exited D.C. for their districts on a strong note, after passing a $325-billion transportation bill that will fund highway and transit programs for the next six years. The bill also reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank until 2019. Both Congressional chambers have now passed a long-term bill, and they will need to reach a negotiated conference agreement before the Highway Trust Fund expires on November 20, otherwise another short-term extension will be required.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders continue to seek an agreement on how to spend the fiscal year 2016 budget. Over the past few months, Senate Democrats have blocked all appropriations bills while calling for a bipartisan budget deal, which was finally reached on October 30. Today they allowed the bill that funds Military Construction and Veterans Affairs to move forward to the floor. And Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) has indicated that he and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are “very close” to an agreement on an omnibus spending bill to fund the government after a short-term continuing resolution expires on December 11.
This week, Senators are also expected to vote on a revised National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), after the first version was vetoed by the President. The House passed its revised version with a very strong 370-58 margin last week.
And, speaking of vetoes, the president may get his chance to nix a Congressional attempt to strike down the EPA’s Clean Water Rule—by now, you know it as the rule that will improve protection for America’s headwater streams and prevent future wetlands loss—as early as next week. After the Senate approved a resolution that would overturn the rule, and prevent federal agencies from ever issuing a similar rule to clear up regulatory confusion, this bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass easily. Once it reaches the president’s desk, it is expected that he’ll say, ‘Do not to pass go.’ Learn more here.
What We’re Tracking
Last Thursday, Congressman Bishop (R-UT) introduced his long-anticipated plan for a revamp and reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Only, it sounds more like a bait-and-switch. Bishop’s bill would fully fund the program at $900 million for seven years and shift a much higher percentage to state-oriented projects. It would also slash funds slated for federal land acquisition— a proven strategy for reducing maintenance costs on checkerboard public and private lands—from $30 million to $2 million. Upon its release, the bill was decried by many in the conservation community, and it is unclear how much support the legislation has on the Hill. A hearing is expected in the House Natural Resources Committee next Wednesday, November 18.
Here’s how they voted on clean water for headwaters and wetlands
In late October, I wrote about three upcoming attacks from Congress on sportsmen’s access to healthy headwater streams and wetlands. We’re now witnessing the aftermath of two of these attacks and, unfortunately for sportsmen, it’s not all good news.
First, a victory: On November 3, the Senate voted down a bill that would have forced a costly and unnecessary do-over on a multi-year federal process to write a rule clarifying which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Rule has been (and continues to be) a target of Congressional ire. Had the bill just sent the rule back to square one, it would have set the cause of clean water back many years. But the bill would have gone one step further to eliminate protections for some waters currently covered by the Clean Water Act, and eliminate consideration of the impact on fish and wildlife when deciding how to protect a body of water. Sportsmen turned out in a big way to oppose this disastrous bill, and it failed.
The bad news? Remarkably, 57 of your senators still voted for the bill undercutting the Clean Water Act. Even worse, on the very next day, the Senate approved a resolution that would wipe away all the work done by federal agencies to produce the Clean Water Rule and prevent them from ever issuing a similar rule to clear up regulatory confusion. This bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass easily. Fortunately, the president is sure to veto it.
Did your senator stand with sportsmen and vote in favor of healthy trout streams and productive wetlands? Click here to see how your senator voted on S.1140, which would have stripped protections from waters long-covered by the Clean Water Act. Click here to see how your senator voted on S.J.Res.22, which would have locked in Clean Water Act confusion and pollution threats to wetlands and headwaters indefinitely.
If your lawmaker voted ‘Nay,’ they voted correctly for sportsmen’s access and outdoor recreation industry jobs.
Throughout much of the debate about Clean Water Act jurisdiction, senators opposing the Clean Water Rule have claimed that “everyone is for clean water,” as if this is somehow self-evident. But, at some point, the actions of our elected officials have to match their words.
Senators cannot claim to be for clean water and then vote for a bill that would kill the Clean Water Rule and prevent efforts to better protect clean water in the future. Senators cannot claim to be for clean water and then vote for a bill that strips Clean Water Act protections that have existed for decades for many of the waters that are critical to fish and wildlife. Sportsmen need to know the difference between the lawmakers who are actually working to maintain and improve natural resources and those who just say they are. The votes in the Senate this week are a good place to start recognizing the difference.
Tell your senators how you feel about their votes. Tell them you need clean water where you hunt and fish.
Thanks to those of you in #PublicLandsProud nation who shared their best upland hunting photos taken on public lands! With seasons opening up from the prairies of South Dakota to the plains of Texas and the pine forests of South Georgia, there were some really impressive submissions, and it was the very tough job of our guest judge, outdoor photographer Brian Grossenbacher, to ultimately select a winner. After much deliberation, here are the winning shots:
First Place: Instagrammer pfitzpatrick
Sean and K on a youth hunt at @texasparkswildlife Chaparral WMA. WMA staff and Game Wardens couldn’t have been nicer. Thanks @texasparkswildlife for the youth hunting opportunity. #settersdoitbetter #englishsetter #quailhunting #takeakidhunting #orvishunting #huntgarmin #uplandlowlife #uplandtradition #publiclandsproud
“This image pulled me in and told a story about the excitement of a kid’s first hunt,” says Grossenbacher. “With hunter’s safety still fresh in his mind, I could just imagine his quickening steps and total concentration as he approached the dog on point. Great composition and lighting, but more importantly, this image speaks to the generations of hunters before us and after us who will have the privilege to enjoy public lands.” First Runner Up: Anthony Hauck @AnthonyHauckPF Oct 19
— Anthony Hauck (@AnthonyHauckPF) October 19, 2015
“I love the perspective of this image,” says Grossenbacher of this shot from Pheasants Forever staffer Hauck. (He had a slight edge in this upland category.) “It shows the wide open space of the hunt and follows the point of view of the dog in the foreground. The more I look at this image, the more I see and get pulled into feeling of being there. Very creative composition that illustrates the long miles, and wide open country of a Western hunt.”
Second Runner Up: Instagrammer ajvavra
“This must have been one of those rare times when the scenery and lighting are so good that it puts pressure on the photographer to capture the perfect image—this one is very nicely done,” says Grossenbacher. “I love that the river tracks through this entire image, plus the play of light, contrast in the clouds, and even a rainbow is just classic Montana.”
Submit your best dog photos for the next round of our photo contest! You could win a new pair of Costa sunglasses, or even our grand prize—a Yeti cooler packed with great swag. Keep showing us what makes you #PublicLandsProud, and we’ll continue to protect your access to quality fish and wildlife habitat.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More