Mention “Greater Sage Grouse” to a birder, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a unique, large bird with spectacular breeding displays. Mention Sage Grouse to a hunter, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a wily game bird that’s much sought after, particularly as numbers and hunting opportunities decline. Mention Sage Grouse to energy developers, real estate developers, and conservative politicians in the West, and “Sage Grouse” is a four-letter word. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it sparked a fierce political battle, with Republican politicians in the West teaming with oil, gas, and real estate interests to fight protection. Despite populations of Greater Sage Grouse declining by over 50% in the last 40 years, and despite the loss of vast areas of former sagebrush habitat, in 2015 the USFWS decided not to list the species under the ESA. It’s disingenuous to discount the impact political pressures had on that decision, as the Greater Sage Grouse still faces significant threats due to habitat loss. However, one of the contributing factors in the USFWS decision not to list the species was, ironically, widespread conservation efforts that started happening in the West after the species was being considered for listing. In effect, the threat of listing, and the very existence of the ESA, sparked protections that may have substantially reduced threats to the species. Without the ESA and the threat of legal protection, those conservation efforts likely would never have occurred.
There are other species where equally contentious political battles are currently being waged. The Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as “Threatened” under the ESA in 2014, and for good reason. On the global IUCN “red list” of threatened species, the Lesser Prairie chicken is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, primarily due to the loss of >85% of its original habitat. Only 20,000-40,000 birds are left, a number that is 98% lower than before settlement of the Great Plains. Despite the obvious scientific reasons for listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in 2015, a court order vacated the USFWS decision to protect the species. An energy development group, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had teamed with a number of counties in New Mexico to sue the government to prevent listing. After the court order, the USFWS released a statement that the court order was contrary to the actual scientific, biologic evidence, and that protections were still required to ensure the species was preserved. However, in a very disappointing move to conservationists, the USFWS decided not to appeal the court ruling.
Western states and associated economic interests have wielded considerable political power in efforts to derail listing of species under the ESA, The Lesser Prairie Chicken is but one example. Political battles against the ESA have ramped up substantially since the Northern Spotted Owl listing in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) resulted in the eventual establishment of the Northwest Forest Plan, resulting in major changes in forest management in the region. Those politically opposed to the ESA use the Spotted Owl case as a rallying cry, citing (supposed) massive job losses in the timber industry as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan. However, after the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted, an economic analysis of the first 10 years of the plan found that 40% of communities in the region experienced some economic decline, 37% experienced economic gains, while the rest were relatively stable. The economic impacts were thus decidedly mixed, not the economic disaster that was foretold, and it was also very difficult to disentangle the economic impact of the Northwest Forest Plan from other economic and political impacts on forestry in the Pacific Northwest. At the same time the Northwest Forest Plan was beginning to take effect, there was substantial increases in competition for timber products from other timber-producing regions such as Canada, Russia, New Zealand, even the elsewhere in the U.S. (primarily the southeastern U.S.). Asian economic declines and a sharp decline in demand for PNW timber in Asian markets also strongly contributed to timber industry declines in the region. However, the perception that it was the ESA and the Northern Spotted Owl that “killed the economy” in parts of the PNW is still widely held among those without a complete economic and political understanding of timber industry declines in the area.
It’s been disappointing to see the lack of political will to uphold the ESA and the scientific research that supports decisions to list or not list a species. Given the strong biologic evidence to support listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and given that the 2015 court order to vacate the ESA listing occurred under the watch of a Democratic Obama administration, the decision not to appeal the ruling was viewed as a betrayal by many conservation groups. However, it’s a sign of the power of political and lobbying groups that have rallied against the ESA in recent years. Even with a Democratic administration that is far more supportive of conservation concerns, the protective power of the ESA has eroded. Scientific research and the actual biological basis on which ESA listings SHOULD be based have instead been replaced with the influence of politics and economics.
This weekend, we’re shifting to a new administration that will undoubtedly be much more hostile to conservation and environmental concerns than has been the Obama administration. The stocking of the Cabinet and other key government positions with businessmen who are openly hostile to environmental regulation ensures that stories like that of the Lesser Prairie Chicken will become increasingly common, where science and biologic need are dismissed in favor of short-term economic concerns. The lack of political will to support provisions of the ESA will remove the regulatory and enforcement “bite” of the law, regardless of what happens with the law itself.
Even more distressing, however, are discussions about directly confronting the ESA itself. Rob Bishop (Republican, of course), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, states that he would “love to invalidate” the ESA. Think about that. The head of the Congressional Committee tasked with overseeing and preserving the nation’s natural resources, stating that he’d like to remove the very law that has been instrumental in preserving our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as countless other plant and animal species
We’re a country where a wide swath of the electorate knows more about Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement than they do about the Affordable Care Act, what’s happening in Syria, the real state of the economy, or other issues that are truly important. It’s that ignorance, that apathy, that enables the election of a narcissistic, childish, pig of a man to the most powerful position on the planet. Here’s hoping that someday soon, we all snap out of that apathy, start paying attention, and hold politicians accountable. Otherwise we’re in serious danger of losing all the great strides we’ve made in conservation and environmental protection in the last several decades.