The Sage Grouse could threaten the Democratic balance of power in the U.S. Senate if the “obscure, chicken-size bird” (as it has been described by the Associated Press} becomes a political football in key senatorial campaigns. According to recently published reports, Republican challengers for U.S. Senate seats currently occupied by Democratic candidates John Walsh, in Montana, and Mark Udall, in Colorado, are appealing to the constituencies in their respective states by supporting a House Bill designed to forbid the federal government from listing the bird as an endangered species for up to ten years, as long as the separate states endeavor to protect the birds. John Walsh is running to replace Max Baucus in Montana, who retired to become U.S. Ambassador to China; Mark Udall is the incumbent in Colorado.
The Sage Grouse is an “endangered” species that just happens to hang out in parts of Montana and Colorado, among other places, where human beings want to hunt, graze cattle, and look for carbon based fuels. There are only three problems with this campaign to protect the Sage Grouse from being listed as an endangered species. The Greater Sage Grouse is not an endangered species, no one in the federal government is trying to list the bird as an endangered species and neither Montana’s Walsh nor Colorado’s Udall favors listing the Sage Grouse as an endangered species. If there was ever a mountain in a molehill of an environmental protection issue, this is it.
One major endangered species protection group lists two types of Sage Grouse, the Gunnison Sage Grouse and the Greater Sage Grouse, but apparently only a Sage Grouse can tell the difference between the two species. Both versions of the Sage Grouse are listed as declining, neither is listed as endangered, but the bird has a devoted following, beginning with Rachel Carlson, whose 1962 environmental classic, Silent Spring, predicted the imminent demise of the species…52 years ago.
In sheer numbers, the Sage Grouse has declined to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 species members but, once again, it is not clear whether those numbers are for one version of the species, the other, or both. What is clear, however, is that Republicans desperate for a win in either Montana or Colorado, if not both, are throwing environmental cautions to the winds in their efforts to gain votes by proposing legislation to prevent the protection a bird that no one in the federal government seems to want to protect. In fact, if it were not for the three environmental groups that sued the federal government in 2005 to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list a non-endangered bird as endangered, the Associated Press might have been right – the Sage Grouse would have remained an obscure bird.
That is not what happened, however. Instead, the Sage Grouse (either, or, if not both varieties) has become a cause celebre among environmental activists, and a hot button issue for those who would prefer a laissez-faire approach to wildlife affected by land management issues to one in which wildlife preservation groups can force government agencies to do their bidding through the federal judiciary.
In a landmark decision that did not really decide anything at all, the environmental groups settled for a 2010 agreement from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in which the FWS agreed to decide whether to list the bird as endangered in 2015, well after the 2014 elections have come and gone. In the meantime, however, both advocates and opponents of protecting a bird that does not need protection are seeking publicity for a bill that no one needs passed since it will only tell the federal government not to do what it does not want to do in the first place…while seeking publicity for their support – or opposition – to what might be the silliest bill to come before the 113th Congress.
When the House version of the bill is defeated on arrival in the Senate, the ranchers will go back to ranching, the hunters will resume hunting (grouse, unfortunately for the grouse, is very good eating as well as being a handsome trophy bird for people who are into such things), and the wildcatters will continue drilling dry wells as they search for oil and gas where there does not appear to be any. Grouse, being relatively easy to knock down, is often considered a consolation prize for hunters who have failed to bag anything bigger during the day. At least they can bring home something good to eat.
There may, however, be more to grouse about than appears evident from cursory examination, beginning with the fact that 52 percent of the grouse population resides in Wyoming, rather than Montana or Colorado. In fact, the grouse ranges covers 11 states, including California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. Out of those 11 states, four have Democratic Senate seats in contention in Colorado, Montana, Oregon and South Dakota , while two others have Republican seats at risk in Idaho and Wyoming. The two Canadian provinces do not figure into the electoral calculations, which means that the grouse in those provinces cannot expect either adverse action or reprieves from the U.S. Congress.
In addition to being widespread, the grouse is also diffuse, with substantial colonies across the whole Northwestern region of the United States and a considerable chunk of Canada. Diffuse populations of wildlife over large areas are generally not considered endangered unless there are simultaneous threats to their habitats affecting all of the ranges where the creatures in question are known to roam. So far, the only such threat to the future of the grouse is actually from climate change. The grouse is a cold weather bird. The only grouse in Florida, for example, are on game preserves and wildlife preservation areas, except for those on the menus of some posh Miami restaurants.
The FWS first petitioned to list the grouse as endangered in 2002, and again in 2003. In 2005, FWS decided that the grouse was neither “threatened” nor “endangered,” which triggered several lawsuits from environmental groups. In 2007, a Federal court overruled the FWS. In 2010, FWS announced that the grouse was threatened, but not endangered, and would make a subsequent determination of the bird’s status in 2015, effectively bargaining their way out of several lawsuits.
The two Republican candidates who are trying to ride the Sage Grouse into the Senate, Steve Daines, in Montana, and Cory Gardner, in Colorado, are going to have their work cut out for them if they expect to bag Senate seats with these flyers. Their Democratic incumbent opponents are equally opposed to federal intervention on behalf of the grouses, and equally powerless to prevent the federal courts from deciding in favor of protecting a bird that does not appear to need protecting.
Both challengers and incumbents must also contend with the fact that Sage Grouse is found in four other states, where the bird has not yet become a campaign issue, making it even more difficult to threaten the Democratic balance of power in the Senate with an obscure, chicken-sized game bird.
Commentary by Alan M. Milner, National News Editor