Dances with Grouse

The decision to not list sage grouse was far more about saving the Endangered Species Act than it was about saving any bird

By Dave Skinner

On Sept. 22, just days before a court-mandated deadline, the federal government announced the greater sage grouse was “not warranted” for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Good news? No, just crazy political dancing.

Expect more lawsuits. The grouse listing decision was mandated in 2011 by a legal “multi-species settlement” that bound only signatory parties to its terms – mainly the sue-crazy Wild Earth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity.

Another group, Western Watersheds Project, refused to join in the settlement, as was their right. WWP instead sued for a listing before federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Idaho. Over the years, Winmill has built a record much like that of Montana’s Judge Donald W. Molloy, very, um, “sympathetic” to environmentalist pleadings.

However, in WWP’s case, Winmill decided to hold off on hearing or dismissing the case until after the Feds ruled on listing. What next? It’s almost certain WWP will press its complaint as soon as possible.

While I would normally bet Winmill will begin proceedings promptly, he might dismiss. Why? Well, as Oregon rancher Bill Wilber told the Bend Bulletin, a listing “would have been the equal of the spotted owl and what it did to the logging industry.” As BLM fire guy Ron Dunton put it to the Associated Press, “If [grouse is] listed, I tell people it will be the spotted owl times 50.”

Without question, listing the spotted owl was an unmitigated economic disaster for timber-dependent communities in the Northwest. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, jobs which will never be replaced. And the spotted owl is still in trouble.

The grizzly bear has been Montana’s version of the spotted owl here. Grizzlies were listed as threatened in 1973, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s when the Swan View Coalition hit the jackpot in the Ninth Circuit Court, using the Endangered Species Act, that the hammer really fell. Had we known then what we know now – or what courts would decree – what might turn out differently?

With experience, more and more Americans are learning firsthand the noble goal of saving nature comes with a painful price. Force enough people to pay a price they think is too great, they’ll revolt – or at least find a way to change the government (and then, the laws) to their liking.

The revolt is already underway. Litigation delays over wolf delisting nearly moved Congress to directly delist through legislation. Congress is today considering directly delisting the lesser prairie chicken, and delaying sage grouse listing for 10 years.

How many more revolutionaries might be created by listing grouse and imposing grizzly-style restrictions on 165 million acres of historic sage grouse habitat in 11 western states, including 98 million acres of private land – potentially “critical habitat” after an appropriate amount of litigation? Well, as retired New Mexico agriculture secretary Frank DuBois wrote for his Westerner news site:

“The reaction of the majority in Congress and the potential impact on the future of the ESA had to be considered. Besides, you know some of the DC Deep Thinkers were saying, ‘Hey, why anger the Congress, threaten our budget and the Act, when more than likely the courts will throw out the plans for not being restrictive enough anyway?’”

Therefore, the federal government “compromised” to save the Endangered Species Act – unilaterally amending 98 federal land use plans covering 67 million acres in August to impose restrictions little different from what a full-blown listing would impose.

Even Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joined seven of 11 western governors in protesting the amendments, which honestly big-footed “cooperative” and “collaborative” state plans, for failing to “take proper and legally required cognizance of Montana’s interest.”

House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop was more direct: “The announcement not to list the sage grouse is a cynical ploy. With the stroke of a pen, the Obama Administration’s oppressive land management plan is the same as a listing.”

In other words, the decision to not list sage grouse was far more about saving the Endangered Species Act than it was about saving any bird.

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