If you can’t get a bill passed in Congress telling a federal agency to stop doing something, just slip some language into the appropriate appropriations

Thomas Mitchell

If you can’t get a bill passed in Congress telling a federal agency to stop doing something, just slip some language into the appropriate appropriations bill denying funding for doing it.

That’s what happened with wild horses. Though the law expressly says the secretary of Interior must destroy excess wild horses, for the past several years Congress’ appropriations measures for the department have just as expressly denied funding to do so.

Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District covering most of northern Nevada, is following that game plan when it comes to heading off the economically crippling designation of greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. 

He was successful in including language in the 2015 fiscal year Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill, delaying any such listing for one year. Not only does it stop the listing of greater sage grouse, but also the bi-state sage grouse that live along the northern border of Nevada and California, as well as Columbia Basin grouse and Gunnison sage grouse. 

“More time is needed to convince the Department of the Interior, which controls the vast majority of the sage hen habitat, to undertake the necessary work to conserve the resource and prevent the ESA listing,” said Amodei. “Interior needs to stop ignoring its financial responsibility while simultaneously attempting to saddle state and private landowners with the obligation to fund fuels management and habitat restoration projects that are absolutely the responsibility of the federal government. Until that happens, funding for any potential ESA rule with respect to the sage hen should be withheld.”

Not that the federal agencies have much solid proof that any of those grouse populations are truly threatened with extinction anytime soon.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) posted on the Federal Register a proposal to reopen the comment period on its decision to list the bi-state grouse, because their data was getting serious challenges from authoritative sources. 

Back in October 2013 Fish and Wildlife reported there were only 5,000 bi-state or Mono Basin sage grouse, supposedly a distinct population, left in the 1.9 million-acre habitat in Carson City, Lyon, Douglas, Mineral and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, as well as land in Alpine, Mono and Inyo counties in California. An ESA listing could lead to restrictions on mining, grazing, farming, fences, oil and gas exploration, roads, power lines, wind turbines and solar panels, various forms of recreation and more — costing jobs and economic development.

In its Federal Register posting, FWS said it had found substantial disagreement regarding the interpretation of the best available data on the birds. “Some commenters stated that our science was flawed and that there are more sage-grouse in the Bi-State area today as opposed to the past, whereas other commenters (including peer reviewers) believe there is a declining trend and continuing threats. It is evident in the comment letters received that analysis or interpretation of data vary between state, agency, public, and peer reviewers,” the FWS concedes.

FWS had planned to make a final determination on the bi-state sage grouse no later than April 28, 2015, but Amodei’s defunding should delay that unless his language is stripped out. The agency’s deadline for listing greater sage grouse, found in 11 Western states, was September 2015.

Among those questioning the science behind the greater sage grouse proposed listing is the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR), headquartered in Colorado.  CESAR claims the service relied almost exclusively on studies written by employees of federal agencies who basically peer reviewed each other’s work.

Those studies listed “threats” to the grouse as including converting sagebrush to crop land, livestock grazing, oil and gas wells, wind and solar farms, roads and the general “human footprint,” but made no mention whatsoever of predators or hunting, even though

207,000 sage grouse were killed by hunters between 2001 and 2007.

According to CESAR, it was unable to replicate the analyses used by federal researchers because none of the data or algorithms was publicly available. “Thus, since the results are neither reproducible nor verifiable,” CESAR said, “the study fails the fundamental litmus test of sound science.”

Before listing either the bi-state or the greater sage grouse, someone needs to do some sound scientific studies and realistically look at what truly is a threat to these birds —including the lack of wildfire prevention efforts on federally controlled land.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing thomasmnv@yahoo.com. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.