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One year after the historic decision not to list the greater sage grouse for endangered species protection, retailers, outfitters, and gear manufacturers from across the country call on Congress to let sage grouse conservation work
Today, more than 100 hunting, fishing, and wildlife-related businesses are asking lawmakers to block attempts to undo collaborative conservation efforts that benefit the greater sage grouse.
As representatives of a $646-billion outdoor recreation industry that depends on sportsmen having access to healthy fish and wildlife habitat, business owners from 14 states have sent a letter that calls on Congressional leadership to oppose language or riders to any legislation that would force the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to abandon their own sage grouse conservation plans in favor of plans developed by the states.
Almost exactly one year ago, on September 22, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, following historic collaboration by federal and state agencies, industry, private landowners, sportsmen, and other stakeholders. This achievement, business leaders write, “should also be seen as a boon for business.”
However, some in Congress are attempting to derail the process by crafting language meant to block the federal conservation plans and attaching it to the only legislation moving in Washington, D.C.—the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and appropriations bills that keep the federal government operating.
“Sportsmen and outdoor business owners across the country are disappointed that Congress continues to play politics with our national defense and other must-pass legislation by attempting to insert unrelated and detrimental language about sage-grouse conservation into bills,” says Ryan Callaghan, marketing manager for First Lite, a hunting clothing company based in Ketchum, Idaho. “Healthy sagebrush is important not only for sage grouse, but also for mule deer, pronghorns, and elk, and to our customers that pursue these species each fall.”
Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, adds that if language contained in the riders were to become law, it would throw into question decades of statutory precedent, several environmental laws, and the subsequent legal decisions around those laws. “Federal, state, and private landowner efforts are all needed to create on-the-ground results for sage grouse, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last fall was predicated on all of these plans working in concert,” says Arnett. “Implementation must be allowed to continue.”
Business owners across the Western U.S. are counting on it. “There’s a lot that goes on in Congress that is confusing, frustrating or seemingly unrelated to what we care about as sportsmen, but when your bottom line—not to mention the activities you love and hope to pass on to your grandkids—depends on the health of an entire ecosystem, you pay attention,” says Melissa Herz of Herz Gun Dogs in Bend, Oregon. “We can’t allow the sagebrush landscape, vibrant with 350 species of plants and animals that rely on the same habitat as sage grouse, to become just a pawn in a political game, and we cannot waver on conservation plans that were put in place for good reason.”
The House version of the NDAA has already passed with provisions that would be detrimental to sage grouse conservation. The Senate is expected to consider its version of the bill, which does not include any language on sage grouse, in the coming weeks. Sportsmen’s groups and businesses have made it clear to lawmakers that the best thing they can do for sage grouse is ensure that state and federal land managers get the resources they need to implement their respective plans and that conservation efforts on private lands continue.
Undoing federal conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing, which is bad news for just about everyone.
On the anniversary of the historic decision not to list the greater sage grouse for endangered species protection, population numbers are up—but there’s still plenty of work to do
Shortly after first light on opening day, my Labs and I maneuvered through the sagebrush in northwest Colorado searching for sage grouse. As we approached a fenced-off meadow, I noticed there were tags on the wires, markers designed to deter grouse from flying into the fence, which many ranchers and others are using to reduce accidental deaths. There definitely had to be birds in the area.
No sooner had I rested my gun on a wooden post to cross the fence when the sagebrush in front of me exploded with the unmistakable sound of a covey flush, and ten sage grouse flew off safely into the sagebrush sea.
Just four years earlier, I’d been hiking what felt like forever in one of my favorite Wyoming honey holes and no birds were to be found. I’d sat on a hillside wondering, “How did we get to this point?” How could a gamebird once so common, widely distributed, and liberally harvested have become so scarce?
That was in the fall of 2012, when drought continued to plague the West. Grouse numbers were low just about everywhere. In fact, the following spring yielded the second-lowest number of male sage grouse attending their breeding grounds in nearly 50 years. But it was more than just drought affecting sage grouse. More than half of the species range had been lost to development, cropland conversion, fire, or invasive juniper trees that the birds generally don’t like. The threats to habitat were so great and bird numbers so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering whether to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Almost exactly one year ago, the agency decided that the bird was not warranted for listing, and this was heralded as a landmark success for collaborative conservation. On a perfect Saturday morning afield with my dogs, fortunate enough to be hunting sage grouse again, I might agree. But sage grouse are not yet in the clear—here’s why.
The Best Laid Plans
A listing would have dealt a crippling blow to the West and its economy. So, voluntarily, yet with the hammer of the ESA looming overhead, state and federal agencies, private landowners, and numerous stakeholders undertook what will be remembered as perhaps the largest coordinated conservation planning effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management.
Wyoming led the way for the states and dove in head first in 2008, launching its own version of a conservation strategy. Today, all states within the bird’s habitat have some version of a conservation plan for sage grouse. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized early on how vital private landowners are to sagebrush conservation and initiated its own strategy, the Sage Grouse Initiative, in 2010. The NRCS immediately began advising and cutting checks to willing landowners to help improve conditions for sage grouse. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service also began their own historic collaboration and developed conservation measures that would amend more than 100 land-use plans to better conserve and manage the sagebrush ecosystem. Finally, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and the Department of Interior led planning and coordination efforts to combat wildfire and invasive species, like cheatgrass, that threaten sagebrush habitat.
It paid off. On September 22, 2015, the USFWS decided that sage grouse did not require ESA protections. However, that decision was predicated on strong conservation plans, especially on federal public lands, and with assurances that they would be implemented and effective.
Many of the states are implementing their plans. Some like Wyoming have been doing it for several years, but others are barely getting started. Now, one year after finalizing their plans, the BLM just issued guidance to all its field offices on how sage grouse conservation is to be implemented on our public lands.
Hopefully the actual implementation of federal plans doesn’t get as bogged down.
Onward and Upward
So where are we today? Bird numbers are up across most of the range. According to WAFWA, 2015 saw a dramatic increase in males attending their leks—a 63-percent increase over what was recorded in 2013. Many have touted these numbers as evidence that the plans are working, but conditions have been naturally favorable. In 2014, rain finally found its way back to much of sagebrush country, improving habitat and helping to bridge the gap while conservation plans were developed. But there’s no doubt that ongoing conservation efforts are helping too—and it can only get better with more widespread support for the whole suite of conservation plans.
On the private lands front, NRCS has continued to sign on landowners under the Sage Grouse Initiative, with more than 1,200 participating so far. The Initiative has cleared 457,000 acres of encroaching juniper to open up sagebrush habitat, protected more than 400,000 acres from development, improved rangeland and grazing practices that benefit both grouse and livestock on nearly 2.8 million acres, and marked nearly 630 miles of fences to help grouse avoid collisions with deadly wires.
While hunting has never been identified as a major threat to sage grouse, sportsmen sacrificed opportunity in most states either with outright closures or curtailed seasons and smaller bag limits. But we also contributed to the solution with hundreds of millions dollars from hunting licenses, fees, and Pittman-Robertson funding dedicated by the states to sage grouse research and conservation.
Don’t Mess With Success
But not everyone agrees with all of the conservation efforts that are planned or ongoing. The strength of the federal land-use plans has been called into question in no less than six pending lawsuits in which the plans are being called either too onerous or not rigorous enough.
Unfortunately, some in Congress continue to meddle with success by trying to force the federal agencies to use only state-developed plans. The problem is that some state plans cannot stand alone to address the threats to sage grouse, and many are based on voluntary efforts with weak assurances they will be fully implemented. Lawmakers who would rather see state plans adopted across the bird’s range are attaching legislation to the only things moving through Congress—our national defense spending bill and other appropriations bills that keep the government funded.
There should be no language in any future legislation that seeks to delay, defund, or otherwise undo the federal sage grouse conservation plans on millions of acres of America’s public lands, and 105 business leaders agree. These retailers, outfitters, and gear manufacturers, who rely on sportsmen having access to quality fish and wildlife habitat, are urging lawmakers to let sage grouse conservation happen. Read the letter here.
The True Test of Conservation
It’s still far too early to claim victory for sage grouse, and quite honestly, I think we dodged the proverbial bullet. Without rain over the past three years, we may have seen a different scenario play out last fall. The documented increases in bird numbers only reflect a short-term uptick; the long-term trend is still one of gradual decline.
The true test of conservation is yet to come.
If oil prices perhaps break $60 per barrel or if we experience another drought in sagebrush country, then we’ll get to see how well the conservation plans really work. All game bird populations go through cycles, and sage grouse numbers will always fluctuate. But what we do next will determine if the species can emerge from particularly tough times.
The Next Chapter
As for my sage grouse hunt last weekend, the story ends like this: I saw exactly where the covey put down, and soon afterward my dogs and I were on the birds. Once again, I heard the telltale sound of flapping wings, and two shots later we had finished our quest for the iconic bird of the West.
How will the story end for sage grouse across their range? That chapter is still being written.
We must stay on track with implementing the conservation plans—all of them—that were so crucial to the not-warranted decision made one year ago. And we must be wary of political meddling. Congress should ensure that there is adequate funding to implement conservation plans and support the states and private landowners. A new presidential administration will take over soon, and no matter who wins, they too must stay the course for sagebrush conservation.
We have little time to spare, as drought will once again hit the American West, as it always has, and pressures to extract resources from the land will continue to compete with our conservation goals.
Sure, as sportsmen, we want to continue to have opportunities to pursue these birds, trek through brushy landscapes with our dogs, and hear the flush of flapping wings. But, as Americans, we should be proud of a collaborative process that’s working—one that represents our scientists, land managers, private landowners, elected officials, and businesses working together—and see it through to a happy ending for the sagebrush sea.
The Senate and House are both in session this week.
Breaking: An East Coast public land transfer bill may be introduced as early as Tuesday. This legislation, from Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), would transfer thousands of acres of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, Massachusetts. This proposal is being put forth as a possible solution to an ongoing dispute between the refuge and several local elected officials. Public lands advocates prefer to resolve the disagreement with a formal agreement between the parties, or perhaps through litigation that can determine the legal legitimacy of the dispute. These alternatives would avoid setting the dangerous precedent of transferring federal public lands to the states through a legislative decision. The Senate is not expected to introduce companion legislation.
The Senate passed a water projects bill with big benefits for the Everglades last week, and now the House must do the same before talks move forward. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) indicated last week that the House might consider its version of “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) sometime before Friday. However, it looks as though that timeline has slipped, leaving just a six weeks or so after the elections for House passage and the conference process.
The Senate cleared its WRDA package, which would authorize Everglades restoration and provisions to improve habitat connectivity, on a hugely bipartisan vote count of 95-3. The House version of the bill does not currently match the Senate version’s provisions on using nature-based infrastructure, like wetlands and reefs, over manmade structures—so that will come up in conference.
It looks like a short-term funding mechanism, which would last until Dec. 9, could be a go. The Senate will begin consideration of a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 9. Senate leadership decided to use “The Legislative Branch Appropriations Act” (H.R. 5325) as the legislative vehicle to move the CR. Disagreements about Zika funding, Planned Parenthood, Internet regulation, disaster relief provisions for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Flint, Michigan, persist, but Senate leaders seem confident that the deal will be cleared this week, and then senators will head home for an early October recess. We expect the House will stay in session until next week, then both chambers will remain in their respective states until November 14, after the general elections.
What else we’re tracking:
Tuesday, September 20
The merging of seed and farm-chemical industries will be discussed in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Wednesday, September 21
Greenhouse gas emissions guidance by the Council on Environmental Quality will be debated at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mitigation policy will be reviewed in a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife hearing.
The federal government’s management of wolves will be deliberated in House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing.
Public land legislation, including Rep. Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) Public Lands Initiative bill will be discussed in a House Natural Resources Committee mark-up.
Thursday, September 22
A public land legislation mark-up is slated to continue in the House Natural Resources Committee.
Senate public land legislation is also on the docket in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.
Chesapeake Bay conservation will be discussed at a House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry hearing.
Economic fuel standards will be deliberated in a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, and Energy and Power hearing.
U.S. National Park Service management will be considered in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.
Regulation guidelines for agencies will be discussed in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management hearing.
Former congressional staff member and policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy brings expertise on appropriations process, proactive solutions for fish and wildlife, and renewable energy to TRCP’s conservation mission
Christy Plumer, former director for federal land programs and lead lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, is joining the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership as the organization’s new chief conservation officer.
“I am thrilled to be joining the TRCP team and augmenting their work to ensure every American has quality places to hunt, fish, and enjoy the outdoors,” says Plumer, who travels out to Bozeman, Montana, to meet with TRCP senior staff and the Board of Directors today. “As a country, we are at a crossroads for conservation, access, our outdoor recreation economy, and land management decisions that will have an impact for generations to come. Now more than ever, we need organizations like the TRCP to lead the way and unite sportsmen and women around the key issues facing fish and wildlife. I’m excited about the important role this organization will play in tackling the conservation challenges of today and crafting the real-world solutions of tomorrow.”
Plumer comes to the TRCP after spending the past year working to advance solar and renewable energy policy with SolarCity, America’s foremost full-service solar energy provider. In her previous role at The Nature Conservancy, Plumer lobbied for improving conservation funding levels through the federal appropriations process, enhancing natural resources policy, and creating proactive solutions for fish and wildlife habitat. She also spent two years as director of government relations for The Conservation Fund and seven years on Capitol Hill working for moderate Republicans, including Sen. John Chafee and Sen. Bob Smith. Plumer also served as staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water under then-chairman Sen. Lincoln Chafee. She holds a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in Environmental Studies from Brown University.
“Having worked on both sides of the legislative process, as a congressional staff member and a lobbyist, Christy’s insider perspective will be invaluable to the TRCP at a pivotal time in Washington,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO. “Her leadership will be an asset to the organization, our partners, and the conservation community as a whole, as we move forward with ambitious goals for conservation policy and welcome a new administration and Congress.”
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