It is rare that I read a guest column in the Missoulian (“The dirty little secret on the sage grouse,” Feb. 4) as misinformed as the one by Rep. Nick Schwaderer, R-Superior, regarding sage grouse, energy policy, wind farms, state-led wildlife management and the federal Endangered Species Act.
I was co-chair of the local working group on sage grouse – comprised of agencies, conservation groups, academics and ranchers – at Dillon for four years, and have participated in dozens of public meetings to develop Montana’s first state-based conservation plan for the species. Very possibly Schwaderer has been a scholar of the issue, but I don’t recall a youngster attending any of the informative meetings. I also come from a family benefitting from the current oil boom on the northern plains. So excuse me if I ponder how it is that the representative now is the only one grasping the “dirty little secret” on sage grouse.
Here are a few of the not-so-well-kept secrets about sage grouse, eagles, energy and the ESA that the representative has perhaps neglected:
■ Greater sage grouse were first petitioned for addition to the list of Endangered Species in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration. President Barack Obama had nothing to do with it;
■ While golden eagles currently lack ESA protections and are declining in many areas, bald eagles under the protection of the Endangered Species Act are recovering rapidly. We probably need to “blame” President Richard Nixon, who signed the ESA in 1973, for this;
■ Contrary to his statement that “there are no plans to restrict their hunting,” in fact sage grouse hunting has already been dramatically reduced range-wide. Ten states have seasons of less than 10 days in length, or have halted harvest entirely. Montana’s Game Commission is poised to establish multiple districts where harvest would become more conservative, and the sage grouse season is already shorter in Montana than for any other upland bird. There is every possibility that harvest will be further restricted if sage grouse are federally listed;
■ Nobody likes birds being killed by wind turbines, but the representative’s inference that something approaching 83,000 eagles are killed by them in the U.S. annually belies the fact that only 87 eagles were reported killed over a 15-year period by wind farms. While surely more eagles are killed by turbines than are reported, the death toll is likely much smaller than those killed by cars, electrocution and lead poisoning from bullets. But these inconvenient facts don’t fit the representative’s anti-government narrative or reflexive bashing of the current administration.
■ Sage grouse are a species of the arid prairie and sagebrush steppe. Energy development, whether conventional oil and gas, wind farms, or massive transmission lines, can damage sage grouse populations mostly because grouse fail in places with intense human activity, or where structures resembling large trees or artificial ponds which harbor disease are constructed (documented scientifically in Wyoming, Colorado, California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Alberta).
Most Montanans appreciate sage grouse as one of our iconic species found across many of the state’s otherwise lonely rangelands. Basically everybody (hunters, ranchers, rural homeowners, land agencies, tribes, even utility companies) say they can get along with sage grouse. Montana has lots of sage grouse, and we’d like to keep it that way. Only energy interests (and even there just a vocal minority), and their ideological toadies assert that sage grouse conservation will devastate industry.
If the greater sage grouse is added to the Endangered Species list, have no doubt about it – it will be because of the intransigence and demands of powerful energy companies that drillers be permitted to do anything, anywhere, at any time. And all this during an era when natural gas supplies so outstrip demand that prices have already collapsed, and the U.S. is well on its way to energy independence via a combination of widespread production and increasing efficiency.
We don’t need the representative’s phony brand of divisiveness to recast the sage grouse as the enemy of communities and economies.
Ben Deeble of Missoula has been involved in efforts to monitor and conserve sage grouse and their habitats since 1999.