Sage-Grouse Preservation and the National Defense Authorization Act

By Marcia Brownlee, Artemis Program Manager

The sage-grouse is a funny, chicken-sized little bird. As a public lands hunter I have been carefully following the plight of the greater sage-grouse because I know that the health of this iconic bird is inextricably linked to the future health of big game species like mule deer, elk and pronghorn – and the future of hunting throughout the West.

Unfortunately, we are seeing increasing attacks on sage-grouse conservation from strange corners.  The latest salvo comes from Utah Rep. Bishop and others in Congress who have attached and supported a rider on the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years. (Full text of the Act can be found here: H.R. 5515, see Sec. 314.) Their misleading argument is that sage-grouse conservation will hinder our nation’s military readiness by constraining operations on military installations in sage-grouse habitat.

Defense officials have said they don’t anticipate problems, but here we are.

All pictures are from the Little Mountain area in SW Wyoming.

It’s not just about sage-grouse.

It can be confusing when we talk about sage-grouse conservation because we aren’t talking about one bird, we are talking about an entire ecosystem.  The sagebrush steppe is a magical place teeming with vibrant flora and fauna that define the American West.  My first real experience in this ecosystem – the first experience where I got down and dirty in the sage instead of just passing through – was antelope hunting in Montana. I remember rolling hills that were steeper than they looked, sunrises that were streaked with reds and golds and went on forever, the smell of sage getting stronger as it warmed, mule deer rising from the gulches, and antelope butts glowing in the distance with reflected sunlight. It’s a subtle landscape, but it’s one that ignites all of your senses and works its way into your core.

Sagebrush steppe extends throughout the interior west of the United States. For decades, pressures from energy development and urbanization have greatly eroded the viable habitat for sage-grouse and have pushed the bird to the brink. Today, there are less than 500,000 total across the West. There used to be millions. Protecting this threatened species means protecting this threatened ecosystem.

Last year, Artemis pulled together a mini-report highlighting the shared common ground of muleys and grouse.  In short, we looked at overlapping habitat and found that 56 million acres of important mule deer habitat including severe winter range is also sage-grouse habitat. This staggering amount of shared ground begs the question – why would we weaken protections for sage-grouse? The loss of sagebrush steppe habitat hurts all species that depend on that ecosystem. You don’t need to be a hunter to understand that. But to hunters particularly, an alarm bell is ringing. We know this landscape well and we can’t afford to lose it.

What’s at stake?

If the act passes with this rider attached, it would undercut years of hard work by Western stakeholders. Hunters are problem solvers. We don’t just complain about something, we work towards solutions.  The sporting community joined Westerners of all stripes – ranchers, local elected officials, business owners, oil and gas industry representatives – to work on a sage-grouse conservation plan that looked at the issue holistically. We have worked diligently and collaboratively to avoid the need to place the bird on the endangered species list and to keep Western public lands open and working for hunting and outdoor recreation. All this work is now in jeopardy.

Congress needs to stop playing politics with military funding by erroneously trying to link sage-grouse to military readiness. They need to pass this essential legislation without resorting to partisan, divisive politics and let Western hunters and stakeholders continue to work on ensuring vital habitat will be healthy for years to come.

The Artemis community can help by sharing this blog on Facebook or Twitter, tagging your Senators (Find your Senators here) and asking them to oppose any effort to include this rider in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. It has no place there.