WASHINGTON — Colorado officials warned a House committee Tuesday that a lack of transparency in the Obama administration’s efforts to protect the sage grouse as an endangered species threatens the scientific validity of the process.
Rob Roy Ramey of Nederland, an independent biologist whose career has focused on species protection, told the House Natural Resources Committee that the process has been closed to the scientific community and that federal officials refuse to share certain data being used to make a final determination.
“It can be like pulling teeth to try and obtain that data,” Ramey said. “The (information) is shared among a good old boys club of people, and yet the data is not public and we’re about to spend billions, if not trillions of dollars on this listing.”
By withholding the information, there is no opportunity to reassess the threat to the species or have a discussion about the priorities to preserve the grouse, Ramey said.
“You can have all the studies you want and can have all the peer reviews you want, but unless the peer reviewers and the public have access to the data, there’s no way that this is truly an effective scientific decision. The (law) requires that these decisions be based on data, not opinions, not speculation in papers,” Ramey said.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky told lawmakers that the accuracy of habitat maps used by state and federal officials was questionable, and that the initial proposal to set aside 220,000 acres in Garfield County as priority habitat was greatly exaggerated. Upon reexamination, the total was reduced to 70,000 acres.
The federal government is expected to make a decision in September whether to list the sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species in 11 states. In Colorado, nearly two million acres of property would be designated as sage grouse habitat subjecting whole communities to land use regulations while restricting ranching, farming, and energy development.
Tuesday’s House committee hearing focused on four separate pieces of legislation addressing the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including one measure that would require federal agencies to post its decisions for listings on the Internet.
The proposed bills would require the government to make available online how much money is spent on ESA-related lawsuits, and reduce legal fees paid by taxpayers in lawsuits with environmental groups, redirecting the money instead to species protection.
Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton said the legislation would require federal agencies to disclose scientific data and cooperate with states, bringing needed transparency to the endangered species listing process.
“With regard to the sage grouse, not only have federal agencies refused to disclose the scientific data on which they are relying to determine potential ESA listings, they have failed to even provide preservation goals to state and local entities already working to effectively preserve the species despite numerous requests,” Tipton said.
“How do we get recovery if we don’t know what the numbers are?” Tipton asked.
Michael Bean, an Interior Department counselor to the assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks, dismissed Tipton’s question and suggested that if the government listed the species as endangered, their determination in the future to delist the species would not be based on the population count.
“Numbers are part of the equation, the main focus is threats — identifying and addressing threats,” Bean said.
Bean also defended the government’s actions in the sage grouse deliberations and said that revealing the scientific data used to make their decision would endanger recovery efforts.