Bird Conservation photo


Consider this:

Under doctor’s orders to lose 30 pounds by the end of the year, you’re within five pounds of the goal when he decides you can take another 12 months to get the job done.

Do you:

A) Work even harder to shed those last five pounds?
B) Order a case of your favorite brew, two 10-topping pizzas and settle down to watch the playoffs?
C) Wonder if your doctor has ulterior motives?

That’s a laymen’s version of a troubling controversy in Congress over efforts to protect the greater sage grouse.

Due to dramatic reductions in suitable habitat, populations of this iconic Western game bird have fallen so low, it is being studied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing under the Endangered Species Act. A major thrust of ESA listing would be to preserve the remaining habitat, which would mean restrictions on ranchers, the oil and gas industry, and sportsmen.

To avoid that drastic step, something unusual – if not unprecedented – occurred several years ago. State and federal agencies joined with landowners, industries, and conservation groups to address the habitat issues, hoping their efforts could bring sage grouse numbers back before the USFWS makes its determination by Sept. 30 this year.

And it has been working. Numbers in critical habitat areas are rising. Just as importantly, groups that oftentimes are at odds over issues are learning they can help each other – by helping the greater sage grouse.

But suddenly, some members of Congress want the deadline for the USFWS decision to be pushed back – a lot.

Last week, Sen. Corey Gardner (R-CO) introduced a bill called the Sage-Grouse Protection and Conservation Act (S.1026).

That title makes it seem to sing the same song as the on-going recovery effort. But as is often the case with Congressional bills these days, the title is something of a Trojan Horse.

That’s because this bill would prevent the USFWS from making final a determination on the listing of this birds for six years.

Which brings us back to the opening example.

What do you think is likely to happen over the next six years if the pressure of that deadline is removed? Do you think the oil and gas industry will continue to look for ways to drill around critical habitat? Or that landowners won’t see little harm in re-purposing those acres for a year or two?

After all, we can pig out on pizza and beer for 10 months and still have two months to lose those extra pounds, right?

Most major sportsmen’s conservation groups don’t think so. They oppose Gardner’s bill. They know the current cooperative effort is showing results that can convince the USFWS to give the project more time.

But they also know human nature.

“In my experience, the carrot and stick approach is the most useful in these conservation issues – and the carrot doesn’t work without the stick,” said Steve Williams, and he should know. Not only is Williams head of the Wildlife Management Institute, but he also served as head of the USFWS from 2002-05.

“I can tell you that the progress this extraordinary effort has made over the last few years is likely to dissipate if the urgency of the deadline is pushed back six years, because that’s part of human nature. We’ll delay, turn our attention to other more immediate issues if we’re given the room to do that.”

In fact, Williams thinks Gardner’s bill could end up harming more than just sage grouse.

“The habitat at issue is important to about 350 species of wildlife, not just sage grouse,” he said. “But there’s something else at stake here.

“I believe the cooperation being shown in this sage-grouse effort between state and federal agencies and landowners is one of the most important conservation stories in my lifetime. This could serve as a model for the way we do things in the future – the way we avoid bigger problems.

“But if this deadline is extended six years – who knows what will happen.”

One thing that could happen is serious revision of the Endangered Species Act. Some GOP members of Congress pushing for such changes and may be thinking they could get that job done over the next six years if a Republican is sent to the White House to work with a GOP Congress.

If that happens, an important stick that has been used to help conserve fish and wildlife habitats across the country would be removed.

And that attack on that carrot has not been limited to the Senate. This week, Rep. Rob Bishop (RT-UT) took the really bizarre step of adding a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act that prevents the USFWS from proceeding with the sage grouse investigation.

Hopefully sportsmen from Utah and Colorado will be joined by their brothers and sisters across the nation in telling these congressmen just how upset they are at interference with a process that could be great for sage grouse – as well as all fish, wildlife, hunters, and anglers everywhere.