Opinion

It’s Time for the Sage-Grouse Rider to Go

The Trump administration is the most hostile to our wildlife, wildlands and climate of any administration that I’ve experienced in my nearly 40 years in conservation. 

We are in the midst of a serious biodiversity crisis. Climate change is wreaking havoc on human and natural systems. Habitat loss and fragmentation are accelerating across the country. 

Yet this administration has discarded dozens of science-based policies to address these critical issues, including the comprehensive strategy developed during the Obama administration to conserve the iconic sage-grouse.

The greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird inhabiting the quintessential Sagebrush Sea, is in freefall. Historical populations estimated at more than 16 million have dropped to as few as 200,000 birds. This summer, Western states reported steeper declines than biologists anticipated: down a staggering 61 percent in Utah since 2015, a 40 percent decline in Montana and Wyoming and a more than 50 percent reduction in Idaho since 2015.

While the Obama administration’s National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy wasn’t perfect, it offered important protections for the grouse and its habitat and an opportunity to do more for the species. In fact, it was the basis for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the grouse under the Endangered Species Act four years ago.

How times have changed.

Even as the sage-grouse has continued to decline, the Trump administration has eliminated and replaced policies critical for conserving the species, while leasing millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat for oil and gas drilling. A federal court recently enjoined some of the administration’s efforts to roll back conservation measures, but the damage is already done.

Unfortunately, Congress has aided and abetted in this assault on the grouse and sellout of our public lands. For years, lawmakers have included a rider in appropriations legislation precluding the service from listing the sage-grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act — eliminating the incentive for the administration and other stakeholders to take voluntary conservation actions to address the well-documented threats head-on and avoid a listing. Stripping the sage-grouse of its ultimate safety net if such voluntary conservation fails is tantamount to ignoring what science is telling us and knowingly standing aside while an iconic species slips toward extinction.

Americans overwhelmingly support the Endangered Species Act. Polling in 2014 found a majority of voters in the West support conservation and, if necessary, listing for sage-grouse to save the bird. And that was when the federal government, states and private landowners were actively working to restore the grouse and its habitat.

Anti-environmental provisions such as the sage-grouse rider have no place in appropriations legislation or other must-pass bills. The politicization of listing decisions is dangerous and jeopardizes the future of imperiled species like sage-grouse.

It’s high time for Congress to right this wrong. The House of Representatives has finally rejected the sage-grouse rider in its Fiscal Year 2020 Interior appropriations bill, but the Senate has retained it. The two chambers will conference over their differences in coming weeks, when wildlife champions need to stand up and speak out for sage-grouse and the Endangered Species Act.

We must do more to conserve imperiled species and defend bedrock environmental laws, policies and programs that were designed to protect our nation’s irreplaceable natural heritage. Congress is the people’s voice in this fight.

The sage-grouse rider was never an appropriate piece of legislation in the first place. If we do not act quickly, we may lose this icon of the American West. It is long past time for the sage-grouse rider to go.

 

Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, and she was previously the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997-2001.

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