Rulings keep the West open for business

by Ray Ring

Decisions not to protect sage grouse and prairie dogs could mean more development in sagebrush and grasslands

Environmentalists and public-land managers have long lamented that Congress never passed an Endangered Ecosystems Act. Instead, they are left with an imperfect tool — the Endangered Species Act.

The law is designed to protect individual species from going extinct, nothing more. Nevertheless, protecting fish, wildlife and plants often requires protecting the places where they live. When petitions and lawsuits put the northern spotted owl on the endangered species list in 1990, for example, it meant significant protections for the Northwest’s remaining old-growth forests.

But in three recent decisions, the Bush administration has been reluctant to protect key species whose habitat spans millions of acres. The decisions, involving the greater sage grouse and two species of prairie dog, may make it easier for many industries to operate around the West. They also raise more questions about the role of politics in government science.

With a Republican-run Congress gathering steam to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists see a tandem effort: "The Bush administration is trying to abandon the law while it waits for Congress to gut it," says Jay Tutchton, a lawyer representing the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, which petitioned to list grouse and prairie dogs.

The canary in the coal mine

The greater sage grouse and the white- and black-tailed prairie dogs play central roles in vast ecosystems, and their decline is a sign of larger problems.

Sage grouse live in sagebrush, which covers more than 100 million acres in 11 states. That may seem huge, but it’s only about half of what it once was. Farmers’ plows, overgrazing, weeds, and oil and gas drilling have sliced up the sagebrush ecosystem, and much of the remaining habitat is in rough shape. Sage grouse, which are extremely sensitive to disturbances, have declined from millions 150 years ago, to between 500,000 and 142,000, depending on whose estimate you accept (HCN, 2/4/02: Last dance for the sage grouse?).

More than 10 million prairie dogs survive on several million acres of grassland, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but that’s less than 10 percent of the population and habitat of 150 years ago, mostly because of federal and state poisoning campaigns done at the behest of ranchers (HCN, 8/16/99: Standing up for the underdog).

But on Aug. 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the black-tailed prairie dog off the list of candidates for endangered species protection. Then, on Nov. 9, the agency decided not to consider the white-tailed prairie dog for protection. On Dec. 3, after a year of study, a panel of agency staffers, including regional directors in the West, concluded that the grouse should not be protected as endangered, either. The agency says population surveys have become more accurate and indicate that the precipitous declines in grouse and prairie dog numbers have leveled off.

The "decision-support" panel of seven Fish and Wildlife Service staffers concluded the greater sage grouse faces only "a low risk of extinction, and it’s not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," says the agency’s director, Steve Williams. "Foreseeable future" means for the next 40 to 100 years, he says, "and those are the standards set by the law." Williams, who was appointed by Bush in 2001, indicated he’ll make the official decision not to list the grouse by Dec. 29.

Another Bush appointee, however, had edited a report by agency biologists that assessed the grouse’s chances of survival. Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary of Interior for fish and wildlife, has a background in engineering and law. In her edit, she wrote that estimates of abundant grouse in the past are "a fairy tale," and that where sagebrush is beaten down, grouse "will eat other stuff."

Williams says the decision panel saw both versions — unedited and edited — and it would be "unfortunate" if anyone doubted the "integrity" of the process. His agency’s chief grouse biologist, Pat Deibert, says she agrees with the panel’s conclusion.

An open door for development

With the failure to list these key species, however, some scientists say that both the animals and their home landscapes are vulnerable. Sage grouse are smack in the bull’s-eye of the Bush administration’s push for oil and gas. In June, in a 610-page assessment from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, state biologists reported, "We are not optimistic about the future of sage grouse," largely due to "continued loss and degradation of habitat."

The Bureau of Land Management, the main landlord of sagebrush, released a National Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy in November. But the BLM makes a point of enabling industry: It prohibits gas drilling within a quarter-mile of a grouse breeding ground (or "lek"), for example, although many biologists call for a two-mile buffer.

The federal agencies mostly want to hand off responsibility for grouse and prairie dogs to the state agencies and the hundred-odd local working groups around the West, which are composed of agency field staffers, ranchers, environmentalists and other stakeholders.

The working groups are developing plans for improving the habitat. But they have little funding, and their protection measures are typically voluntary. Even Williams admits that removing the threat of ESA action could cause locals to relax their conservation efforts.

When black-tailed prairie dogs were taken off the candidate list in August, several federal and state agencies began a new poisoning campaign, targeting 8,700 acres of colonies in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota. The area is a prime recovery area for the endangered black-footed ferret, which feeds only on prairie dogs. "The biologists were shocked that the poisoning went ahead so quickly in ferret territory," says Tutchton, the environmental lawyer.

In response to a lawsuit from Tutchton, the agencies reduced the poisoning to about 6,800 acres.

The author is HCN’s editor in the field.

CONTACT

Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver, 303-546-0214 or www.nativeecosystems.org


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in Lakewood, Colo., Diane Katzenberger, 303-236-4578, or mountain-prairie.fws.gov © High Country News