Western state officials sought to assure House lawmakers on Tuesday that their plans to protect the greater sage grouse are working, a day after the Obama administration floated plans to give states more say on endangered species listings.
The officials told members of the Natural Resources Committee that their efforts to preserve the imperiled bird species’ habitat are sufficient and took federal interference to task.
Dustin Miller, administrator of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, said that top-down federal direction erodes the flexibility at the state level.
“We’re closest to the ground… and our local biologists and scientists know more about the species than our federal partners do,” Miller said.
Western states are working to stave off a federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA, (PL 93-205) listing for the bird, which would restrict energy and other development in its habitat, which stretches across 11 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Kathleen Clarke of Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office said, “What started out as a very promising [federal-state] partnership is becoming increasingly imbalanced and, sadly, adversarial.”
She said she worried that upcoming federal land use plans “may be, in fact, more dangerous than a listing” of the bird. She added that state plans “can be much more nimble” than federal plans, which are very difficult to modify.
The Interior Department is expected to finalize updated land use plans related to the sage grouse this month and faces a Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether to recommend federal protection for the bird. Environmental advocates have been pushing for nearly a decade for the designation, citing such threats to the bird’s habitat as livestock grazing, invasive weeds, drought and development.
But panel Chairman Rob Bishop said, “Cramming more species onto a list or blocking millions of acres [of land]… is not a measure of success.” The Utah Republican recently backed inclusion in a Defense policy bill (HR 1735) of language preventing a listing of the sage grouse for 10 years to let state conservation plans run their course.
“We need to examine the states’ underutilized authority to manage species,” Bishop said on Tuesday, adding that state management plans “have been dismissed out of hand by the Fish and Wildlife Service without a good reason.”
Meanwhile, Arizona Rep. Raul M. Grijalva — the House panel’s top Democrat — dismissed Tuesday’s hearing as a vehicle to criticize the Obama administration without inviting its testimony.
“I understand why some people want to short circuit this process. If it works, then the ESA works,” he said, emphasizing collaboration between federal and state stakeholders and their shared goal of avoiding a listing for the grouse.
Democratic witness Ed Arnett, a senior scientist at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, echoed that sentiment.
“The path forward is through the development and implementation of both federal and state plans that are robust to preclude the need to list the species,” said Arnett. “This is not an’either/or’ proposition.”
Tuesday’s hearing comes on the heals of the Obama administration’s announcement of a series of proposed changes on how it implements the Endangered Species Act, including an expanded role for states.
Unveiled Monday, the Interior Department plan includes a proposal that those seeking an ESA listing first solicit information from state wildlife agencies.