Wildlife Conservation Funds Cut
Buried in the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that the U.S. Congress passed over the weekend is a provision barring the federal government from spending money to protect three species of sage grouse that are in danger of extinction.
The rider, a victory for the oil and gas industries, livestock producers, and off-road enthusiasts, is only the opening salvo in animal-versus-money battles expected in the coming Republican-controlled Congress.
“This is just a little taste of what we’re going to see over the next two years, and I think it’s very scary,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biodiversity, a Tucson, Arizona-based environmental group, “And it’s not just about the sage grouse. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to go after the Endangered Species Act and all species in peril.”
When riders are attached to spending bills, it’s extremely difficult to remove them from subsequent appropriation. “That means we may never see Endangered Species Act protection for these species,” Spivak said. “Theoretically, they could do this for any endangered species that might be in line for protection under the act.”
The budget rider bars the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from spending funds on writing and issuing recommendations for a pending decision to declare the sage-grouse species as threatened or endangered.
“House Republicans are more interested in kicking the can down the road than finding solutions to conserve the sagebrush landscape and the Western way of life,” U.S. Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said in a statement.
The bill still provides funding to conserve sage-grouse habitat.
“FWS will continue to collect data and conduct analysis to reach a final decision,” said an Interior Department official who asked not to be identified.
Only about 5,000 breeding Gunnison sage grouses survive, while the greater sage-grouse population is estimated between 200,000 and 500,000, according to the FWS.
“It’s a very finicky bird, and their populations do not take well to disturbances,” Spivak said. “To protect them, the things that cause them harm need to cease.”
Cattle graze on native western grasses, which the sage grouse also eats and depends upon to hide its nest from predators. Highly flammable invasive grasses often replace native species, leading to an increased number of wildfires in the region.
Oil and gas wells are also destructive. “When you drill a well, you’re literally ripping up the habitat of the sagebrush,” Spivak said, “plus the needed infrastructure, the trucks coming in to service the wells, and also the noise.”
Some 300 animal species—including birds, antelope, mule deer, and elk—also depend on sagebrush to survive.
“The last Congress and the one before that had a number of attacks on the Endangered Species Act, and one of our primary concerns for this Congress are proposals generated by the Hastings Endangered Species Working Group,” said Ellis Pepper, wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the organization of 13 House Republicans focused on the Endangered Species Act.
“That group has some of the most ardent opponents of the Endangered Species Act, and it published a report last year outlining a legislative strategy that weakens and even eliminates protections—and increases the likelihood of extinction.”
“We’re hopeful the Senate will shoot down these ridiculous bills, as they have in past,” Pepper said. “But it’s hard to say what will happen. I’ve never worked with this type of Congress before, but we are preparing.”
Some Democrats in Congress also support weakening endangered species protections, but the majority do not.
“We’re really going to need the Democrats to stand up and speak out,” said Spivak, who urged people to contact their representatives in Washington to support the nation’s wildlife.
“Letters and calls do help, even though we have Republican control,” Spivak said.