Jim Lyons: Don’t let Congress circumvent the Endangered Species Act

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Two Sage-Grouse face off while strutting in the Parker Mountain area, near Loa, Utah, in April 2016.

It’s rare in any sphere, and especially conservation, to achieve a working consensus on a complex and divisive issue. But in 2015, 11 states, three federal agencies and a multitude of stakeholders endorsed a landscape-level conservation plan to protect the greater sage-grouse on more than 60 million acres of public lands.

The Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Strategy required years to produce and cost more than $45 million to develop and implement. This commitment delivered a conservation strategy to protect an iconic bird and ecosystem threatened by decades of mismanagement.

Unprecedented in purpose and scope, the strategy was designed to protect priority sagebrush grasslands for sage grouse and hundreds of other species, while also providing for sustainable use of these lands for grazing, energy production, and mineral development. Based on this extraordinary conservation effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the greater sage grouse did not require protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration launched an effort to change the range wide strategy, threatening protections for the grouse as well as other sagebrush-dependent species, including pronghorn, elk and mule deer. Most egregious were decisions to increase oil and gas leasing tenfold in priority habitat areas despite abundant energy resources elsewhere, to end protection for 9 million acres of the most important “stronghold” areas for grouse, and to eliminate requirements that developers mitigate future damage to sage-grouse habitat.

The state of Utah sued over the Obama administration’s science-based conservation plans, and welcomed the Trump administration’s plan revisions that reduced and eliminated more protections for sage grouse in Utah than in any other western state.

Even as a federal court recently enjoined the Interior Department’s attempt to rollback the Obama era plans, recent reports indicate that sage grouse populations are declining in every state in which the bird remains. In Utah, the 2019 lek count — the number of strutting male grouse counted on breeding grounds — showed a decline of 61% from 2015.

With Trump administration’s policies increasing disturbance and destruction of grouse habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service may need to reconsider its decision not to add the grouse to the list of ESA-protected species. However, a rider in pending appropriations legislation before the Congress would prohibit the agency from even considering the species for federal protection despite these damaging changes to the sage grouse plan.

Regardless of one’s views on the Endangered Species Act, the law has been effective in preventing the extinction of many species and in recovering others on the brink including the bald eagle. Should the appropriations rider prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting the sage grouse by listing it as a threatened species, the fate of the grouse and the western sagebrush lands it inhabits may be in doubt. Yet, the majority of Americans support the ESA and the values it represents.

We’ve made important progress over the past several decades in understanding and conserving sage grouse and the imperiled sagebrush ecosystem. That’s precisely what the Endangered Species Act — which passed the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate by large, bipartisan, margins over four decades ago — was written to do. But circumventing the law to protect a species threatened with extinction instead of following the landscape-level, science-based, collaborative strategy devised in partnership with 11 states, private landowners and public land users to protect this iconic bird and the sagebrush ecosystem is wrong.

To ensure we don’t lose the greater sage grouse forever, it is important that Congress not substitute political science for the science-based strategy that the Fish and Wildlife Service determined would save the species from extinction. The Congress should permit the ESA to work by removing the sage grouse rider from the annual spending bill.

Jim Lyons

Jim Lyons was Interior Department deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals under Secretary Sally Jewell and one of the departmental leads in developing the Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy that prevented the need to protect the grouse under the Endangered Species Act.