Opinion: No time to waste on sage grouse protection
Ryan Summerlin June 24, 2014
I am writing today to talk about something less glamorous and romantic than the Thompson Divide issue we in the Roaring Fork Valley hold so dear. However, this subplot is of immense importance to our region.
The greater sage-grouse and the even more-at-risk Gunnison sage-grouse have both experienced drastic population reductions and have lost at least half of their historic range to development in recent years. These two species right now are on their way out. But still, there are people, even leaders in our state like Congressmen Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, who would further delay federal sage-grouse conservation for at least a decade — essentially writing a death sentence of extinction for one or both of the species.
Ironically, they have named their bill the Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act. Make no mistake, this bill totally undermines the Endangered Species Act passed under a Republican administration in 1973, carving out a politically motivated exemption driven mostly by oil and gas interests. We have seen the result of these type of exemptions in the wholesale slaughter of wolves going on now in Montana and Idaho.
In cases like that of the sage-grouse, hesitation is their enemy and their ticket to extinction. History has already taught us that waiting extra time to decide whether to save a species or a landscape often means waiting the proverbial moment too long. Waiting 10 years as Rep. Gardner wants borders on negligence —The bill calls for states to develop protection plans.
As we “progress,” our society going faster and faster and consuming more and more, we must be sure we are making progress on all fronts — including and especially being aware of the immediate actions we need to take to protect our God-given environment. This is especially true in Colorado and in the Roaring Fork Valley with so much of our long-term economies built on ranching, tourism and recreation. Colorado’s projected population growth also is part of this equation. In terms of conserving the important and treasured wildlife and lands that we have left, this means using science to thoughtfully plan two or three steps ahead of the game, not 10 or 20 years behind. We need vision from our leaders; this bill sorrowfully does not do that job.
Our state and federal agencies already know what needs to be done to conserve sage-grouse and the Sagebrush Sea, and it does not involve waiting another 10 years as the birds decline further before taking action. The great Sagebrush Sea is one of the most iconic and recognizable landscapes in America — it is the image we all hold in our minds when we think of the West.
Sagebrush is also critical habitat for sage-grouse and many other species like elk and mule deer and, of course, the buffalo before we basically hunted them to near extinction. This habitat has been drastically fragmented by activities such as oil and gas drilling and road construction. Sage-grouse population decline is just another warning shot across the bow of sustainability.
The fragile state of these birds confirms the desperate need for adequate conservation plans for both sage-grouse and the public lands that encompass much of what remains of our sagebrush prairies.
Alas, they are but another canary in the coal mine and some Republicans appear ready to let them go extinct. Unfortunately, rather than promoting effective action to conserve the birds, recent legislation like Rep. Gardner’s will instead slow conservation efforts, greatly increase the risk of extinction and create an all-the-more-difficult and costly burden for states in the long run when the sage-grouse are finally listed as endangered. It will also make the federal listing of the greater sage-grouse, an outcome the bill attempts to prevent, as inevitable for the greater sage-grouse, as is now that case for the Gunnison sage-grouse.
Instead of wasting time that the birds don’t have with ill-conceived bills like Gardner’s and Tipton’s, we need our state and federal leaders to work together toward a unified goal of true conservation. Please take the time to educate yourselves on this issue and let our leaders know how you feel before it is really too late. Extinction is forever, you know.
— Frosty Merriott is a trustee for the Town of Carbondale.
Editor’s note: On Friday the U S Department of Agriculture announced $31 million in spending to target grouse habitat in California and Nevada. The hope is this conservation effort will spread to 11 other Western states, including Colorado, over the next several years.