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Saving Sage Grouse: Another Collaborative Failure

Grouse chick. Photo: Wildlands Defense.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was written and passed into law for just one reason —  to keep fellow inhabitants of our beautiful blue planet from becoming extinct due to the actions of humans. So when sage grouse populations, which are estimated to have been as high as 16 million historically, plunged to an estimated 200,000-500,000 in the last few decades, they were determined to be “warranted” for listing on the Endangered Species Act. Then along came the conservation collaborators with a plan to keep them from the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

It is unfathomable why organizations and individuals who promote themselves as conservationists in Montana have worked overtime to keep threatened fish and wildlife species from Endangered Species Act listing.

For instance, the last wild population of fluvial arctic grayling in the contiguous United States is found in the Upper Big Hole River. Yet Montana Trout Unlimited was ambivalent about listing and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fought to keep the grayling from being listed — and protected — under the Endangered Species Act. Now, assurance that they will not go extinct is still highly uncertain, especially with the unknown vagaries of climate change.

When it comes to sage grouse, the primary destroyers of the once-vast sagebrush sea are grazing and its associated fencing, oil and gas development, and road-building. But rather than curtail those activities through ESA listing the collaborators, led by Montana Audubon, decided to go along with yet another advisory council where they could sit down with the habitat destroyers and come to a wonderful collaborative agreement to prevent the extinction of sage grouse.

After 10 years of meetings, reports and comparisons with the other 11 Western states where sage grouse are now nearly extirpated, the collaborators came up with their solution — the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Plan “so that Montanans maintain control of their lands, wildlife and economy,” as the state’s website says.

It’s worth noting the plan is intended to “sustain viable sage grouse populations” instead of recovering sage grouse populations. When the conservation collaborators and their ranching, oil, gas and development partners submitted the plan to Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, the first thing he did was slash the recommended one-mile distance from industrial activity to sage grouse leks to 0.6 mile and exempt a long list of ongoing industrial and agricultural activities from compliance.

Yet they about broke their arms patting themselves on the back after the Obama administration approved what Montana Audubon hails as “unprecedented conservation efforts to keep sage grouse off the Endangered Species List.”

But then Donald Trump rode to the rescue of the oil and gas industry with his Interior secretary, Montana homeboy Ryan Zinke. As the Washington Post noted, “the existing order to keep drilling projects out of sensitive Priority Habitat Management Areas would be struck.” That spurred a lawsuit by Western Watersheds and Center for Biological Diversity that claims Zinke and Trump will allow “a massive proposed development of some 3,500 oil and gas wells within critical sage grouse winter habitat.” Despite the fact that 70 percent of sage grouse habitat is on federal lands, Zinke’s agency says they “are committed to being a good neighbor and respect the state’s ability to manage wildlife.”

Conservation collaborators just don’t get it that simply because they cut a mediocre “conservation” deal with a handful of locals, Congress and Trump remain fully captive to extractive industries. Conservation collaboration failures just keep coming — and more’s the pity for Montana and the West that the self-congratulatory collaborators haven’t yet learned that lesson.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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