Politics & Policy

Meet the Bird That Could Drop a Spoiler on Senate Races

Grouse conservation ruffles political feathers.

–The greater sage grouse may now clasp the November fate of the U.S. Senate in its fowl claws.

This chicken-sized bird known for its distinctive mating ritual has initiated debate between Democrats and Republicans about federal- versus local-government control over conservation efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ruffled the feathers of western state residents with a plan to list this grouse as an endangered species by September 2015, according to the Associated Press.

With Republicans six seats shy of a Senate majority, the sage grouse could cause a flap in western states that have long resented the federal government’s sticking its beak into their affairs. And two of those states, Montana and Colorado, have vulnerable sitting Democratic senators. The two Republican congressmen running for Senate — Steve Daines in Montana and Cory Gardner in Colorado — are co-sponsoring legislation that would stop the U.S. government from listing the bird for a decade.

Environmentalists and the two Democratic senators being challenged, John Walsh in Montana and Mark Udall in Colorado, say they also dislike the idea of a listing but believe the “endangered” label will urge states to protect the bird. A Udall spokesman says Daines and Gardner’s bill would undermine locally driven efforts by delaying the listing.

Local efforts seem to be underway in Montana. After proposing in May to halt all sage grouse hunting this season, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has instead decided to shorten and narrow the hunt, still leaving it the longest in the nation. The Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the new proposal on Thursday, the Prairie Star reported.

A column in the Missoulian argues that the state agency decided in 2010 the sage grouse required protection but not at the expense of species facing greater threats. According to columnists Ed Arnett and Greg Munther, the September 2015 deadline for listing would hold off further delays, such as the DainesGardner bill, while environmentalists whip up “a sense of urgency and perhaps even panic.”

A listing could limit development, energy exploration, hunting, and ranching on the 165 million acres of the bird’s habitat, AP reported. The question remains whether it is the federal government or the states that have the authority to limit human activity in the name of conservation.

State governments have an incentive to flock together in opposing federal grouse-conservation efforts.

A study by the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based trade organization of independent oil and gas producers, estimates steps by the federal government to protect the grouse could cost Colorado between 5,000 and 31,000 jobs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also opposes a listing, preferring to preserve the sage grouse’s habitat and so increase its population, according to the Powell Tribune. Three environmental groups sued the U.S. government in 2005 to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the greater sage grouse as endangered. If the sage grouse ends up on the Endangered Species List, the accompanying restrictions will hold for all 11 western states, many of which are big hunting regions.

A report by the Nature Conservancy said greater sage grouse “have lost more than half of their native habitat and their numbers have plummeted from 16 million to about 500,000.” Alan Milner wrote in the Guardian Liberty Voice, however, that “it is not clear whether those numbers are for one version of the species, the other, or both.” There are two types of sage grouse: the Gunnison sage grouse and the greater sage grouse, “but apparently only a sage grouse can tell the difference between the two species,” Milner says. “Both versions of the sage grouse are listed as declining.”

— Celina Durgin is a Franklin Center intern at National Review Online.


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