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Sage Grouse

Male sage grouse strut in hopes of attracting a mate on a lek in southern Natrona County. Gov. Matt Mead wrote a letter critical of efforts to tuck a 10-year stay on listing sage grouse as an endangered species into a defense spending bill. 

Gov. Matt Mead says tucking a 10-year stay on listing sage grouse as an endangered species into a defense bill could damage a diverse Western alliance formed to protect the bird and “encourage apathy” toward keeping its work alive.

Mead made the statement in a letter to Congressional leaders on the Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah has made a habit of trying to include the sage grouse rider in the National Defense Authorization Act every year, arguing that a listing for the bird would hamper military training operations and hinder military readiness.

Bishop’s approach to sage grouse is on the far end of the spectrum compared to Mead. The moderate Wyoming governor has become the political axle around which Western sage grouse partners revolve.

Mead was in D.C. Tuesday lobbying in favor of recently proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act. Congress acting on individual species is a “red flag” that the underlying conservation law is flawed, he said.

He made that point again in the Wednesday letter to Committee on Armed Services leaders Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-TX, and Rep. Adam Smith, R-WA.

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Mead is not alone in his opposition to Bishop’s rider. The Defense Department took issue with the congressman’s proposal in a position paper leaked Wednesday.

“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 department wrote. “This is simply not the case.”

The department reversed its position Thursday after the leaked comments, which DOD said were “informal,” made it into numerous media stories.

“The Administration, the Defense Department, and the Interior Department support the provision in question and believe that it could help the Department avoid any negative readiness impacts on military facilities should the species be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” said Pete Giambastiani, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, in a statement Thursday.

Bishop maintains that a listing would pressure military exercises and he’s argued the same to no avail in the past few years.

“Should this be in the NDAA, you’re darn right it should be,” Bishop said in a 2015 debate on the rider. “It will have a negative impact on military readiness, even to the point of closing down some of our ranges.”

Other agreed with him at the time, including the U.S. Navy.

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Conservation groups are hungry for the support offered by the Department of Defense. In previous years, McCain worked to keep the rider out of the bill, believing that extraneous or political items shouldn’t be tacked onto must-pass military legislation.

But McCain is not in residence this year. The senator and former naval captain is battling brain cancer.

Vet Voice, a group that mobilizes veterans to political involvement, shares McCain’s position on riders.

“The Department of Defense’s views, which came to light earlier today, confirm what veterans across America have been saying: this rider, which targets species like the sage grouse, has never been about military readiness,” said Major General (Ret.) Paul Eaton, Managing Director of Vet Voice Foundation, in a statement Wednesday.

On July 10, hundreds of veterans sent a petition-letter urging Congressional leaders to oppose the rider, calling it an “ideological crusade” that would only hold up important defense legislation.

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Mead’s letter opposing the rider quickly pivoted to his much bigger mission in D.C. — changing the Endangered Species Act.

Sen. John Barrasso recently introduced a draft bill to overhaul the ESA, which includes a number of recommendations from Mead and the Western Governors Association. The bedrock conservation law has not been reauthorized since the 1990s.

“I support fixing the root cause of the problem as opposed to relying on Congress to address one species at a time,” he said. “Further, I support working on scientifically based, local solutions to species management that precludes the need to list a species.”

Changes to the ESA, supported by the governor, would increase state authority when species are in decline or listed as endangered. They would also narrow litigation options, a likely sticking point from conservation groups, but Mead and other proponents say the changes would be based on science and strengthen collaboration.

The rider undermines that work. It’s a red herring to Mead, who’s overseen sage grouse management plans as governor for eight years. A new governor will take over that role next year.

Damaging the momentum on sage grouse now could cause serious issues down the line, Mead wrote in his letter.

“I am concerned that the rider will fracture the groups that came together to protect greater sage grouse and encourage apathy towards the species,” he said. “It is unlikely that the same level of support would be there in a decade to keep the species off the list when the rider expires.”

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Bishop has held a number of grudges with federal sage grouse management in recent years, and his take that sage grouse plans have been unnecessarily stringent gained some ground under the new White House.

Utah has about 7 percent of the bird’s population compared to Wyoming’s 43 percent, according to 2015 data. But like Wyoming, Utah has huge swaths of federal land, meaning federal agency management of the bird.

But while Wyoming leaders have shaped the conversation on sage grouse science, Bishop has been a more strident outlier.

In his testimony two years ago on the rider, Bishop bucked the accepted science of sage grouse declines that Mead and others in Wyoming embrace.

“The biggest threat to this bird is not human activity, it is wildfire on federal land,” he said. “Second one is invasive species on federal land.”

Part of Wyoming’s management strategy for the bird, one mirrored in federal plans, is to focus on protection of habitat in crucial areas used by the bird to reduce continued fragmentation. That approach staved off an endangered species listing in late 2015. Bishop said in an interview with the Washington Examiner in December that he believed some of the land marked for sage grouse protections was put in place simply to block development.

Bishop has been joined by others in his criticism of parts of the federal approach. Mead, energy representatives and ranchers have pushed back on aspects of federal plan. Some conservationists have said plans are strict enough.

But the centrist position, fostered under Mead, was loyalty to a methodology protecting habitat.

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Last summer, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the federal strategy needed review. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the bulk of the federal sage grouse habitat in Wyoming, is in the midst of revising those plans before an October deadline.

Critics say the changes sell the bird out for energy interests. Mead has repeatedly cautioned the Interior to tread lightly given the long-term interest of keeping the bird from further decline. As the state with the largest sage grouse population and economic interest in balancing conservation and energy development, Wyoming has perhaps the most at stake in the debate.

Insiders say the sage grouse rider discussion will likely continue into next week.

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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