Greater sage grouse again eludes defense funding crosshairs

Greater sage grouse again eludes defense funding crosshairs

A male greater sage grouse struts its stuff on Bureau of Land Management land (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)

WASHINGTON — Once again the greater sage grouse is sitting pretty, escaping attempts to have it go up against the Pentagon.

Efforts to use the western animal — a favorite of photographers and mascot of two liberal arts colleges — to complicate the defense bill failed again this year.

“We don’t understand why they are doing this,” Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, told TMN in an interview. “It had been tried in the past (and) it is not a popular move.”

Sage grouse roam over 11 Western U.S. states and parts of western Canada. They are noted for unique mating dances and colorful behavior.

Opponents of the bird maintain that special protections for it and other species crimp the military’s ability to conduct training in various parts of the west. That allegation has never been substantiated.

“The sage grouse has nothing to do with national defense,” Whit Fosburgh, president & CEO the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told TMN in an interview. “This is an attempt to get through something they cannot get through on any other bill, so they try to attach it to something that must pass.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. That was largely because of efforts by western — mostly Republican governors — to amend existing land-management plans and craft one that give states flexibility to protect habitats.

Nevertheless some House Republicans inserted a rider to the defense bill that would block the grouse — along with the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle — from going on the Endangered Species List. Adding them to the Endangered Species List could lead to more land use restrictions by farmers, industry as well as the military, for 10 years.

Their effort survived the House but not the Senate. Senate committee members sought to keep out any amendments or riders that would be so-called “poison pills” aimed to increase opposition to the overall bill.

“We have been working with the bipartisan coalition just to say there should be no riders in the process, that this is about keeping the defense bill about defense funding,” Amy Gutierrez, legislative associate at the Center for Science and Democracy, told TMN in an interview.

The Pentagon went both ways on the issue.

In July, the Pentagon issued a letter saying the sage grouse does not thwart military readiness. “Inclusion of this provision misleadingly implies that the DOD has had or may have difficulty managing for these species without degrading military testing and training,” a letter to the House Armed Services Committee said. “This is simply not the case—no management action related to these species inhibited DOD’s ability to appropriately test and train.”

However, one day a later a senior Pentagon official issued a conflicting statement. “The Administration, the Defense Department, and the Interior Department support the provision in question and believe that it could help the Department avoid any negative readiness impacts on military facilities should the species be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” Pete Giambastiani, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, said in the statement.

Fosburgh said he expects opponents to keep trying until they eventually leave Congress. Until then, dance on greater sage grouse, dance on.

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