Washington D.C. conservation lobbyists whom I interviewed back in October cited several important issues to watch before the end of 2016. I’m happy to report that the lame duck session of Congress properly resolved one of them today.
The Senate voted on Wednesday morning to send legislation to the president’s desk without a nasty rider that would have harmed an important game bird. The the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act did not include a measure that would have halted crucial conservation efforts for Western sage grouse.
Last year, the Obama administration decided not to list western sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act after a historic bipartisan partnership developed a plan between states and private landowners and other nonprofits to preserve the species’ habitat. It’s exactly the type of grass-roots, locally crafted agreement that anti-government blowhards demand when they’re bleating about too much regulation.
Months of collaboration from conservation nonprofits, agricultural producers, and representatives of state and local governments tailored the agreement to individual states to advance the species’ recovery and improve important areas of sage grouse habitat.
Bottom line: It kept the species off the ESA, along with the oversight that accompanies listing on state and private lands. And some of us think the initiative could set an example for other potential ESA battles down the road, maybe even some here in Minnesota.
Folks like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Steve Kline consider the Sage Grouse Initiative a huge victory and compromise, but efforts to undermine the agreement quickly erupted. Language was inserted in the NDAA by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would have limited the scope of sage grouse conservation activities and prohibited the Interior Department from altering the status of the bird until Sept. 30, 2026. The provision in the 2016 legislative package followed inclusion of a similar measure in last year’s House version of the same bill. Thankfully, that measure also ultimately was removed by the conference committee after emerging as a major sticking point. It’s now headed to President Obama’s desk.
A press release from my friends at Backcountry Hunters and Anglers hailed the development today and cited U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, who acknowledged the efforts by members of Congress to remove the damaging language and advance NDAA’s passage into law, thereby also advancing sage grouse conservation.
“The bipartisan, multi-state effort to conserve and protect the greater sage grouse and its habitat has averted the need for Endangered Species Act protection and brought together partners and landowners across the West to improve the health of the landscape for people and hundreds of species of native wildlife that call it home,” Ashe said. “I want to thank Congress for recognizing that this important conservation effort should continue. We’re committed to working with Congress and key partners like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers in the years ahead to make sure we help keep working families on the land while making a place for sage grouse and other wildlife in sagebrush country.”
In the release, BHA – which has been actively engaged in preventing the sage grouse’s listing under the ESA while promoting the bird’s recovery – commended the decision to jettison the provision and urged adherence to the conservation plans.
“Collaborative efforts by the federal government, Western states, landowners, ranchers, sportsmen, and a range of other stakeholders have brought us to where we are today – at a point where sage grouse populations could someday recover and where habitat relied upon by hundreds of valuable species of wildlife also will benefit – but only if we allow our management plans to work,” said BHA Conservation Director John Gale.
Per BHA: The 4.2 million acres of sagebrush steppe occupied by the grouse provide habitat for more than 350 species of fish and wildlife, including big-game species such as mule deer, pronghorn, and elk. Healthy and functioning sage grouse habitat fuels an outdoor-reliant economy that provides a stable source of income for communities across the West.
The Audubon Society also gave the news a strong thumbs-up up.
“The sage-grouse conservation plans are the result of years of painstaking collaboration between state, federal and private stakeholders,” said Brian Rutledge, Audubon’s policy and conservation advisor. “It’s good to see this rider removed from the defense authorization bill, where it had no place being to begin with. This was an ill-informed attempt by those with an anti-conservation agenda to undermine protections for our public lands and wildlife. It’s time to let local stakeholders, who put these plans together, get back to work.”