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“The oil and gas industry doesn’t want to be told where it can or cannot go. They see this setting places aside as a slippery slope,” says Jessica Goad of the Center for Western Priorities. “But they’re in a bit of a pickle here. Essentially they have two options — either we have stronger plans to stop the decline of the bird, or it can be listed as an endangered species.”
Goad says that in Colorado the oil and gas industry would prefer neither option and has chosen a third: delaying the decision, which is supposed to be made next year.
“It would be delayed and litigated for a very long time. Rep. Cory Gardner has introduced a bill that would delay the listing decision by 10 years,” Goad says.
On May 22, Gardner, R-Colo., joined with other legislators in both houses to introduce the Sage-Grouse Protection and Conservation Act, which would prevent the sage-grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years. He is on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and according to OpenSecrets.org, the oil and gas industry was the biggest contributor to his campaign last year.
In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert sued the federal government for state ownership of public land, including national parks and wilderness areas. Much of the bird’s habitat in in the state, however, is on private land and school trusts.
He recently claimed the bird’s population increased last year. He expanded energy development and has said any listing of the sage-grouse could cost the oil and gas industry in his state more than $41 billion. Oil and gas interests are some of his biggest political backers too.
“There are always loud voices whenever we have a natural-resource issue that’s as big and broad as this,” says Noreen Walsh from the Fish and Wildlife Service. “What I think is significant about this is the large spectrum, from federal agencies to individual ranchers, to try and head off a listing by improving the prospects for this bird. There are always extremes, but there’s a huge middle. That’s one of the things that are very encouraging.”
Walsh points to other promising signs. In Oregon recently, ranchers signed on voluntarily to manage any threats on their land to the sage-grouse and its habitat. Tom Sharp, chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen Association’s committee on endangered species, said the sage-grouse issue is the “spotted owl of today.”
“But there’s a difference. The sage-grouse issue is the spotted owl on steroids.”
The agreement between the cattlemen and the Fish and Wildlife Service is being replicated across eastern Oregon, which is home to some of the best remaining habitat for the bird. It’s also home to vast cattle-grazing areas, which bring in over $600 million for the state. The ranchers, too, are learning to coexist, says Sharp. “What’s good for the bird is also good for the herd.”
For Ulrich, a fourth-generation Wyoming resident and an avid hunter, interest in preserving the sage-grouse ecosystem extends far beyond maintaining the environment for him and for future generations. “From our standpoint, we have the biggest to lose. We have the predominance of habitat, and most of our economy is based on oil and gas development. From that standpoint, our participation in the decision was the only decision, because we had so much at stake,” he says.
“We [the oil and gas industry] fuel the economy. A healthy percentage of the taxes paid in Wyoming are paid by oil and gas and mining. That keeps the taxes low. We have no personal income tax, a low sales tax, very high quality of living.”
Wyoming, he says, has done its job in protecting the environment in anticipation of the decision whether to list the sage-grouse. He only hopes the other states will also be ready in time.
The decision will be made in September 2015. If just one of the 11 states fails to find a compromise between its industries and its conservationists, all of them will have to face a tougher future.