The sage grouse can’t catch a break. The bird with a riveting mating ritual and a 40-million-year lineage, which provided sustenance for Plains Indians and settlers all across the American West, has long been imperiled. According to scientists’ rough estimates, 16 million sage grouse once lived from the Dakotas to northeastern California. But humans destroyed half the birds’ habitat, and only a few hundred thousand are left.
In 2015, the bird’s prospects seemed to improve. Scientists, oil and gas developers, ranchers, mining companies, environmentalists, hunters and federal, state and local government officials of both parties finalized a multistate science-based plan to protect it. Their agreement, which includes the largest voluntary wildlife conservation program in the nation’s history, embodies all the attributes of deal-making that politicians give lip service to but rarely embrace these days: bipartisanship, collaboration, inclusivity, transparency.
The plan required a decade of study and negotiation. The scientists and environmentalists wanted to protect the bird and the sagebrush ecosystem; the energy companies and ranchers wanted to prevent sage grouse from being listed as endangered, which would trigger highly restrictive regulations. What resulted is a plan that accommodates mining, grazing and energy development except where sage grouse are most concentrated. In the two years since it went into effect, scientists have seen signs that the sage grouse population is starting to rebound.
Now all that is in jeopardy. In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a review of the plan to align it with President Trump’s pro-fossil-fuel energy and land-use policies. The review signals one last gulp at the fossil fuel trough before renewables make fossil fuels uneconomic and climate change makes them indefensible. As Jim Lyons, the Obama administration’s assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management, aptly put it, the review is “a thinly veiled and unnecessary attempt to open up important habitat to oil and gas drilling.”
This is not a strictly red-versus-blue issue. It pits Democrats and some Republicans against other Republicans and their allies in extractive industries. In recent months, governors leading a sage grouse task force created by the predominantly Republican Western Governors’ Assn. have written at least three times to Zinke expressing reservations about the review. “Wholesale changes to the [sage grouse] plans are likely not necessary at this time,” explained one letter. Among the signatories was task force co-chair Matt Mead, the Republican governor of Wyoming, where 37% of all sage grouse live.
The sage grouse is an “indicator species.” Protect it, and you protect some 350 other plant and animal species, all denizens of sagebrush terrain — among them are elk, pronghorn, mule deer, golden eagles and pygmy rabbits. Sage grouse can’t survive without healthy sagebrush, which the plan focuses on promoting — and whatever helps sagebrush helps all the other species in a Texas-sized swath of habitat that stretches across 11 states.
It’s noteworthy that when Zinke announced his 60-day review (not much time to consider a plan that took 10 years to formulate), he expressed enthusiasm for “innovative plans and workarounds” to “improve” sage grouse conservation. One idea is to abandon the emphasis on habitat in favor of simply maintaining the bird’s population state-by-state. That benefits energy developers, who would no longer be stymied by pesky regulations minimizing sagebrush disturbances, but it would be disastrous for sage grouse. (It doesn’t help that sage grouse are notoriously difficult to count.)
“If you take out of the plan all the monitoring and management that focuses on habitat quality,” Wilderness Society senior counsel Nada Culver, told me, “you have just dismantled the plan.”
The other two “innovations” Zinke cites are even more ill-advised. One is captive breeding of sage grouse, which is expensive, technically demanding and capable of producing very few chicks. The presence of farmed birds in flocks of wild sage grouse would also reduce the species’ genetic diversity and increase its susceptibility to disease, further threatening its survival.
Finally, Zinke proposes controlling — that is, killing — some sage-grouse predators, including coyotes and ravens. This is a prescription for unintended consequences, such as a population explosion among other predators that are an even greater menace to sage grouse.
Here is how radical the Zinke crowd’s approach is: Without the plan to protect the sage grouse, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service almost certainly would have concluded in 2015 that the bird deserved an endangered listing. But it couldn’t have followed through because a rider Republicans attached to the federal budget bill in December 2014 — which is still in effect — bars the service from acting on a decision to list sage grouse. By freeing Republican policymakers from the restraints imposed by the Endangered Species Act, that rider opens the way to eviscerating the conservation plan with no worries that another regulatory process will impede them.
Machinations such as the rider — and the review — are a means of chipping away at American environmental law, especially the foundational Endangered Species Act. What the administration, its allies and some congressional Republicans are after, it appears, is not just wider access to sage grouse habitat but an end to habitat — and species — protection itself.
Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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