An icon of our western landscape – the magical, beautiful greater sage grouse – is in trouble. As pressure mounts on the oil and ranching industries to protect this great bird and the landscape it inhabits, some are arguing that collaboration – not the law and not the science – is the solution. Last week’s opinion piece by Ross Lane of Western Values Project (Sept. 9) declares the Montana sage grouse plan a spectacular success, and casts aspersions on conservationists who have successfully litigated to protect the bird.
We see it differently.
Before the threat of Endangered Species Act listing, sage grouse were declining fast and everyone knew it, but almost no one lifted a finger to help. Once the bird was petitioned under the Endangered Species Act, and lawsuits made listing imminent, long-overdue efforts to show progress began in earnest.
By contrast, collaboration is the elixir of the status quo, giving veto power to each entrenched interest. This shrinks the universe of possible solutions to that small and tepid list of measures upon which all participants can agree. Real changes to the activities that are causing sage grouse declines are bargained away. For the sage grouse, the status quo is a path to extinction, the result of ongoing habitat loss and populations declining toward zero. Sage grouse aren’t surviving the status quo.
And the feeble state effort that these collaborative efforts have “achieved” amount to far less protection than the sage grouse requires to survive.
We have a greater scientific understanding of sage grouse than almost any other species. This knowledge gives us a blueprint to recover this iconic dancing bird. The Montana state plan ignores this scientific knowledge.
The Montana plan protects less than 4 percent of the most important nesting habitat from industrial destruction. It allows almost twice the intensity of industrial disturbance that the bird can handle. It uses chicanery to skew well-density calculations to permit far more than the one industrial site per square mile that sage grouse can tolerate. Industrial development under these terms will extend population declines.
When a group of stakeholders reach consensus on an inadequate grouse plan that only prolongs the decline toward extinction, does this agreement constitute success or failure? It depends on whether you’re trying to protect industrial interests or sage grouse.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s failure to act decisively to protect the grouse today wastes a golden opportunity to avert the need for Endangered Species Act protections tomorrow. Courage would have yielded benefits, but instead vacillation will have its consequences.
In 1973, a bipartisan Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and a Republican president signed it into law. It remains an important safety net when state efforts fail, as is happening in Montana thanks to Bullock’s appeasement of the oil industry. The act requires listing decisions be based solely on the best available science, and thus can succeed where political compromises have failed.
Western Values Project’s recent comments that an ineffective collaborative plan is somehow the best path forward for sage grouse ignores the law and science. The conservation groups that have battled hardest and achieved the most for the sage grouse – those unafraid to petition the grouse for protection, who successfully litigated to force conservation action, and who convinced the Interior Department to undertake range-wide plan amendments – will continue to stand strong to protect Montana’s wildlife.
Lane has a lot to learn about sage grouse, and about western values. Fortitude. Respect for the land. Perseverance. Getting it right the first time. These are western values. Selling out? Caving in? Going along to get along? Not so much.
Empty words and rhetorical flourishes won’t reverse sage grouse declines. Instead, hard-nosed, science-based solutions are needed. Emplacing such solutions – through advocacy when possible and litigation when necessary – is the path to a successful sage grouse recovery.
Collaboration has failed the sage grouse in Montana. Wishing away hard realities and political deal-cutting makes conservationists more popular, and enables them to fail. It’s no path forward for either the sage grouse or conservation professionals. Join the resistance, upholding our western conservation ethic and protecting our wildlife legacy, instead of collaborating on the extinction of this remarkable species.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, directing the Sagebrush Sea Campaign from an office in Laramie, Wyoming. He has been working on sage grouse conservation issues for
14 years, and is a graduate of the University of Montana.