Sage Grouse Debate Prompts Scrutiny of Far-Reaching Federal Species Law

September 4, 2013
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton is concerned that if the Sage Grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act, it may never be de-listed -- even if the population recovers

Rep. Tipton expressed concern that the Sage Grouse may never be de-listed — even if the population recovers

WASHINGTON — The federal government listed Johnston’s Frankenia as an endangered species in 1984 insisting the special protection was needed because there were only 1,500 of the Texas shrubs left on the planet.

But the government made a mistake; there are at least nine million of the plants living a healthy existence throughout the state and in northern Mexico, yet the shrub remains on the federal Endangered Species List as a protected plant because the de-listing efforts that started a decade ago have become too cumbersome to complete.

Now as debate heats up on Capitol Hill over the proposed listing of the Sage Grouse as an endangered species, a key concern of Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton is that it may never be de-listed, even if the population recovers.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decide to list the species, the new protections would restrict management of two million acres in Colorado considered critical habitat, including private property. That means limited use of the property for grazing or energy development.

“If we have a recovery in Garfield County, it will never be taken off the listing because we may not have recovery up in Moffat County,” Tipton said during a House Resources Committee hearing last month that focused on the contentious Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“Don’t you think that we need to have better practices when we get recovery in different regions?” Tipton asked USFWS Director Dan Ashe, who testified at the hearing.  “We’ve got to be able to have better policies, because we are hurting small businesses.”

At least 1,500 species of plants and animals have been added to the special protections act since Congress passed the law in 1973.

In that 40 years, only 50 species have been removed from the list, because of data errors that should have prevented listings in the first place, or because species were believed to be extinct.

The government says that it’s work has led to the recovery of 15 of those endangered species, but critics say there is little evidence to back up that claim on any creature except for the wolf, which is also still on the list even though it is considered a recovered species.

“I view the ESA is a one way street — animals and plants go on the list, but they don’t really come off,” said Rob Gordon, a senior advisor at the Heritage Foundation who previously served as the director of several conservation groups and as a former House Resources Committee staffer.

“This notion that we can create this pure entity that is going to do a perfect job of regulating nature is just totally unrealistic,” Gordon said.

At the core of the ESA’s dysfunction is how it motivates government bureaucrats and environmental groups to continually add rather than remove species from the list.

Some critics say the incentives have lead to the settlement of recent lawsuits in which the government has agreed to consider listing more than 100 new species, some of which further block energy development and other uses, mostly in western states.

“Environmental groups use the act as a means of land-use control, and they add species because those species give them the ability to control the land,” Gordon explained.

Last year, oil and gas developers headed off a proposed listing of the Dune Sagebrush Lizard after agreeing to Obama administration demands that 650,000 acres of land in New Mexico and Texas be set aside for the creature’s habitat.

Other development projects have not been so lucky. Construction of a California hospital was blocked after the discovery of eight Delhi Sands Flower-loving Flies, and the Braken Bat Cave Meshweaver Spider brought to a halt construction of a Texas highway for 80,000 commuters.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service gets authority every time a species is added, it expands their authority and expands their argument for more funding,” Gordon said.

“That’s what happens when you list things – more authority, more control by left green groups, and none of those things happen by de-listing,” Gordon added. “They are not compensated on the basis of being effective.”

The Heritage Foundation advocates for more state and local involvement to manage and preserve species, which Tipton also supports.

“It’s ridiculous that the federal government is assumed to have more knowledge and be a superior expert to states where the species may reside,” Gordon said.

“Just the notion that a group of federal government officials could somehow micromanage nature down to the individual species, when you step back and look at it, you see the absurdity of it,” Gordon said.

“There are thousands of kinds of beetles in North America, and no one knows how many kinds of beetles there are. Is it realistic to believe the federal government can really have a census of all of them and determine not only how many of them there are, but where their population is going up or down?” Gordon asked.  “We don’t know with certitude how many people live in the country, and we’re going to have that kind of certitude about things that live under a rock in the desert?”

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One Response to Sage Grouse Debate Prompts Scrutiny of Far-Reaching Federal Species Law

  1. Gary Skiba
    September 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    It took decades in most cases to degrade species’ populations to the point that they were in danger of extinction. Expecting recovery to take less time is nonsensical.

    In spite of that, the statement that “…only 50 species have been removed from the list, because of data errors that should have prevented listings in the first place, or because species were believed to be extinct…” is not true. The bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the American alligator have all been removed from the endangered species list BECAUSE OF THE WORK DONE BY ALL OF US to reach recovery. In the case of the eagle and the falcon, banning DDT was the single most important step. For the alligator, curtailing hunting was key. In many ways, these were “easy” species to recover. The ones that will be more difficult, such as the Gunnison Sage-grouse (not yet listed, but likely to be) have declined due to changes in habitat (vegetation and soil). Sagebrush ecosystems throughout the West have been degraded, mostly due to uncontrolled domestic animal grazing that took place over 100 years ago. Anyone who thinks that the sheer dirt-walled arroyos in many of our rangelands are natural isn’t thinking very hard. The majority of those formed because riparian vegetation was removed, followed by normal storm events. This isn’t an attack on grazing or ranchers or the agencies that manage our public lands. The abusive grazing took place before we either understood the impacts, or in a time when the impacts weren’t considered a problem.

    There are definitely ways that the Endangered Species Act could be improved, and the idea of relaxing restrictions in areas that have made management changes to conserve species has merit. Thinking of the Gunnison Sage-grouse again, Gunnison County has made tremendous efforts to conserve the grouse, and the Gunnison Basin is the stronghold for that species. The outlying populations are in imminent danger of dying out. They need the protections of the ESA. Gunnison County and the Gunnison Basin, unfortunately, will be the victims of poor conditions elsewhere.


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