The parable of the sage grouse
ANYBODY worried about America’s ability to settle political arguments should consider the greater sage grouse. Better still, as the May sun warms the western plains where it lives, go and watch it dance, as Lexington recently did in Wyoming. There are few stranger sights in nature.
After spending the winter huddled in sage brush, a twiggy shrub that carpets the plains and is the backdrop to a thousand Westerns, male grouse gather on patches of open ground known as leks. There, for several hours a day, starting at sunrise, they fan their tail-feathers into a speckled halo and emit a peculiar warbling sound by dilating air-sacks in their feathery breasts. The unearthly chorus this makes—think of a mobile orchestra of chicken-sized didgeridoos—rises up from the vast and glorious Wyoming steppe. In the lee of the snow-covered Wind River Mountains, it is a New World Eden, an expanse of yellow and green dotted with distant herds of pronghorn and wild horses.
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It is exceptional, however. Over half the sage brush on which the grouse feeds has been lost and much of what remains has been degraded by agriculture, industry and invasive grasses fortified by global warming. From an estimated 16m birds, the grouse has been reduced to fewer than 500,000 across 11 states. A decade ago this almost led to it being listed under the Endangered Species Act, with potentially disastrous consequences. It would have restricted development on grouse habitat, potentially beggaring states such as Wyoming which collects three-fifths of its revenues from energy companies. To prevent that, the state forged a remarkable coalition of ranchers, hunters, conservationists, politicians, scientists, miners and oilmen to devise measures to stop the listing. Other western states followed suit, and in 2015 the Department of the Interior, which controls the public lands that dominate the West, included these and some additional measures in a sweeping new management regime for the western plains, including 98 revised land-use plans, covering 67m acres of grouse habitat. It was one of the most complicated land-management exercises in American history, one of the biggest achievements of the Obama Interior Department. President Donald Trump’s Interior Department may be jeopardising it.
That is not the sort of thing Secretary Ryan Zinke promised during his confirmation grilling last year. The one-term member of the House of Representatives declared himself an “unapologetic admirer” of Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy. He also claimed to be a devotee of the “John Muir model of wilderness” and “Pinchot model of multiple use, using best practices”. His subsequent record suggests that was not true. A former navy SEAL with an excessive fondness for saying so, Mr Zinke has seemed mainly devoted to lekking and grousing. He has aggrandised himself embarrassingly, with secretarial flags, man-of-action publicity shots and a helicopter tour paid for from his department’s firefighting budget. He has denigrated Interior’s 70,000 employees: in a speech to energy executives he said 30% were “not loyal to the flag”. His able deputy, David Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, has meanwhile attacked the large areas of conservation and environmental policy Interior controls.
Last month it announced plans to nobble a century-old law protecting wild birds; it was passed a few months before the death of Roosevelt, a keen ornithologist. Last year it eliminated 2m acres of protected area: Muir would have turned in his grave. So would Gifford Pinchot, because by slashing restrictions on oil-and-gas prospecting on public lands Mr Zinke’s department is trying to trade multiple use—a public-land management principle enshrined in law as well as tradition—for the “energy dominance” demanded by President Trump.
Like the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior has also deleted references to climate change from its literature. Given the lead role it plays in climate science, through the US Geological Survey and other research divisions, some suspect it could even end up doing more damage to environmental policy than the EPA. That agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, seems as distracted by personal ambition as Mr Zinke, and until recently had no deputy (he has filled the vacancy with a former coal lobbyist).
In this context, the review of the sage-grouse plans Mr Zinke launched last year, which produced a list of draft revisions on May 2nd, might seem like a minor issue. But there is more at stake in it than the bird.
The draft revisions suggest Mr Zinke wants to promote drilling on grouse habitat and give the states more say in managing it. The second aim, at least, sounds reasonable; one or two of the federally imposed measures seem ill-advised and western states are fiercely independent. But there are two problems with this.
First, putting the onus on state action risks losing sight of the original point of the conservation effort, which was to persuade a federal agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, not to list the grouse as threatened. Left to themselves, the evidence suggests, states would adopt weaker measures, risking the feared listing.
More grouse than sage
Second, the upheaval Mr Zinke has caused is already a setback to the collaborative, locally grounded approach to land management that the plans, despite their federal imprimatur, represent. Such collaborations, a quiet success of three previous administrations, Republican and Democratic, have proliferated in the western states, especially in forests and watersheds threatened by wildfire and drought. They are one of the most positive recent developments in American politics, a riposte to the dysfunction partisanship has caused. But they do not happen by accident. They require regulatory certainty—in this case, a clear sense that the grouse will be listed failing adequate conservation measures—and a degree of mutual trust. Mr Zinke’s cynical stewardship of America’s public lands is eroding those conditions.
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