Update, July 19th: The day after news broke that the Department of Defense had issued a statement to Congress saying that the Greater Sage-Grouse did not inhibit military readiness, it clarified its position. The Department of Defense now says that the Greater Sage-Grouse does inhibit the military's readiness.
To most people, the Greater Sage-Grouse, a portly ground bird that has seen huge declines across the 11 Western states where it historically resided, might not seem like much of a threat to our national security. Representative Rob Bishop (Utah-R), however, believes otherwise.
This week, Congress is continuing to consider the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual bill that greenlights everything from foreign military spending to veteran compensation. But to pass the Act, members will also have to consider a rider, or tacked-on stipulation, proposed by Bishop, that the sage-grouse and the troubled Lesser Prairie-Chicken cannot be listed under the Endangered Species Act for a period of 10 years. It also requires that the American burying beetle lose its endangered designation. The supposed rationale is that protections for these species limits the use of lands important to the military. That reasoning, it turns out, is hogwash.
The Senate version of the NDAA did not include the rider, but the House version, which was approved in May, did. If the provision passes through the conference committee stage, it will then carry into a final version of the bill that both chambers will vote on. If the bill is passed, Bishop's rider will become law.
This is the third straight year Bishop has tried to pass such an amendment, and its inclusion irks more than just conservationists. Last week, more than 400 U.S. military veterans with the Vet Voice Foundation signed a letter that urged senators and representatives to reject the provision, which is seen as an unnecessary hurdle to finalizing vital plans for military spending.
“In past years, leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee has rightfully insisted that extraneous provisions, like this sage grouse rider, be tossed aside,” the letter reads. “This year should be no different. We urge you to do what is right by military families and reject this provision and other politically-motivated riders like it.”
Today, the Department of Defense issued its own statement denouncing the rider's language and dispelling any notion that the sage-grouse inhibits the country's military readiness. "Inclusion of this provision misleadingly implies that the DOD has had or may have difficulty managing for these species without degrading military testing and training,” the letter states. “This is simply not the case—no management action related these species inhibited DOD’s ability to appropriately test and train.”
Along with being a glaring case of political opportunism and a possible road block to an important bill, the provision comes at a perilous time for the Greater Sage-Grouse. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced his commitment to reworking a landmark 2015 partnership among states, conservation groups, and the Department of the Interior that has so far kept the bird from having to be listed as endangered—a trigger for heavier, more sprawling protections. Revising these 2015 plans has been a highly contentious decision.
Known for its trademark strut performed at mating gatherings called leks, the sage-grouse can go through sharp boom-and-bust life cycles. Any change to the current guidelines—such as the loosening of restrictions on oil and gas development on public lands—has conservationists worried that the bird could see a sudden decline, possibly requiring the protections a future endangered species designation would provide. Bishop, a known opponent of the 2015 agreement, would like to see nothing more than these potential protections eliminated in advance.
His motivations are not missed by many, including Brian Rutledge, Audubon’s vice president and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “It's a must-pass bill and they're trying to put a rider in there that doesn't belong,” Rutledge says. “The NDAA needs to be about national defense, not Rob Bishop's personal agenda."
In addition to veterans and the DOD, the provision has seen strong pushback from a diverse group of conservation and sporting organizations, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Wildlife Federation. Collectively, these groups sent their own concerned letter last week, addressed to John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, a ranking member of the committee.
“Legislating wildlife management through the defense authorization sets a bad precedent and unnecessarily shifts attention away from the purpose of the NDAA—national security,” the group wrote. “Language in the current House NDAA bill calling for a 10-year delay for listing multiple species under the Endangered Species Act is detrimental to on-the-ground and established wildlife conservation efforts and is nongermane.”
As the letter goes on to point out, the sagebrush ecosystem is home to more than 350 different species of plants and wildlife. As such, the sage-grouse guidelines created in the original 2015 agreement also protect an entire habitat vital to a wide diversity of flora and fauna. With those collaborative efforts being revised by Zinke, Bishop's rider is paramount. If the sage-grouse's circumstances were to become so dire that a listing was necessary, it would create an important conservation umbrella. But if Bishop's rider succeeds, the Endangered Species Act won't be an option for at least the next 10 years. A lot of damage can be done in that time.
Additional reporting by Shweta Karikehalli.
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