Tracy Stone-Manning and Nada Culver: Energy dominance agenda threatens our Western way of life

Good things happen when people on opposite sides of the table work together. Common ground forged by compromise tends to last, which it is what makes it worth all the work. And Westerners, especially, tend to understand a deal is a deal.

That’s why so many people and groups, including our two organizations, were so taken aback a couple years ago when the Trump administration tried to unravel sage grouse conservation plans that had been so long in the making through the bipartisan efforts of western governors, ranchers, conservationists, industry groups and sportsmen.

The administration threw out a decade’s worth of work in the name of its so-called energy dominance agenda. Thing is, they didn’t have to. There is plenty of room in the West to develop natural resources and protect the sage grouse.

One of the most basic parts of the plan was grounded in western common sense: The federal government would prioritize leasing for oil and gas outside of sage grouse habitat. Pretty simple. To save the bird, try to drill where the bird doesn’t live.

But in the name of an energy above all else agenda, the administration tossed aside even that practical measure, something so uncontroversial and easy that each of the Western states adopted it into their own plans.

We’re not sure why the feds thought that would be a winning proposition, but it wasn’t. Having all other options fall away, we reluctantly took our case to the courts a couple years ago. Last month, we won when the U.S. District Court in Montana invalidated 440 oil and gas leases in Montana and Wyoming and ordered that the government send payments back to the companies that had bought the flawed leases. (The feds should not only cover payments to those companies, they should cover the payments that went to the states, too, given the current fiscal bind they are in.)

Like most Americans, we are tired of a governing strategy that pits people against each other, and in this case, against the Western landscape we share with wildlife. That’s especially so because the stakes are at an all-time high: sage grouse are an indicator species that reflect the overall health of the ecosystem. Over the past few decades, sage grouse populations have declined dramatically. Populations dropped 44% in the last four years alone.

The grouse is our canary in the coal mine, and it is gasping for air. The sagebrush steppe that grouse inhabit spans 11 western states and provides a home to pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and a broad assortment of upland birds. Sagebrush country also supports hunting, ranching and hundreds of rural communities.

If the federal government doesn’t start working with all parties involved, this species that once darkened the skies in flight could wink out. An entire ecosystem will be at risk. We simply cannot let this happen, and will keep fighting to prevent it from doing so.

It’s past time for the Trump administration to end its energy dominance above all else agenda and for it to start working with all of us — not just oil and gas companies. There are countless reasons to do this but perhaps this one is simplest:

Wildlife helps define us as Westerners. When we save it, we save ourselves.

Tracy Stone-Manning

Tracy Stone-Manning is associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation.

Nada Culver

Nada Culver is vice president for public lands at the National Audubon Society.