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The greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken: let science decide

The greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken may not seem like big players in the House of Representatives' $30-billion Interior and Environment appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016. They are, after all, birds. But they are vulnerable species that could disappear. The sage grouse's case is being handled correctly — by the Department of Interior's experts and the scientists on whom they rely. The lesser prairie chicken may not be so lucky.

The chicken is one of several species that lawmakers want to pluck out from under the Endangered Species Act through language inserted into the Interior bill, in effect seeking to dismantle the law one species at a time. It also would take gray wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes states off the list of threatened species and prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the Sonoran desert tortoise.

Even more troubling is a provision that would halt the service's efforts to tighten restrictions on the importation and sale of ivory in the U.S. as part of a global effort to stop the slaughter of African elephants. Meanwhile, another House bill — to reauthorize defense programs — would de-list the American burying beetle, one of the largest populations of which is found on an Army National Guard training center in Oklahoma.

Known for puffing out its chest and spreading its tail feathers into a spiky fan when it goes courting, the sage grouse is the subject of riders in both bills. These provisions would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from even considering adding the bird to the list of imperiled species. At least the service beat Congress to the punch and decided on its own not to list the bird, which is sensitive to noise and the fragmenting of its 11-state habitat. Officials said the bird is being saved through an extraordinary collaborative conservation effort by environmentalists, ranchers, energy producers and local governments.

All these creatures have experienced precipitous declines in population over the years, typically because of development and habitat loss. They've seen their ranks revive as well. But decisions about their conservation shouldn't be made by members of Congress and corporate interests. Whether a species is so robust that it does not require the protection of the Endangered Species Act must ultimately be a scientific call, not a political one.

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