A Bird’s Eye View of the 2016 Budget: Sage-grouse and the Federal Spending Bill
When President Obama signs the 2016 Omnibus budget bill as he’s expected to do later this week, he’ll be signing off on a lot more than hard-fought spending agreements. In what appears as a victory for conservation, he’ll be approving funding for the new west-wide management plans for sage-grouse habitat, approved by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service at the end of September. The bill approved by the House earmarked $60 million for habitat conservation, a nearly fourfold increase over current spending limits.
While this investment could signify the dedication on the part of the federal government to truly protect sagebrush habitat, unfortunately, what it really means is a whole lot of chopping, burning, blading, and spraying the sagebrush steppe. The agencies are prioritizing a futile attempt to remove weeds instead of removing the livestock that spread them. They are prioritizing the eradication of native and reestablishing juniper woodlands instead of eliminating the disturbance (livestock) that leaves the grassland vulnerable to new ecotypes. Instead of removing the most pervasive cause of ecosystem disturbance in sage-grouse habitat, the agencies will dump money on so-called restoration. Rather than upsetting a handful of western ranchers by ordering an ounce of prevention, the government is paying for a $60 million dollar pound of “cure.”
In many cases where the agencies are proposing widespread “habitat restoration,” they can’t see the forest for the cows… er, trees. Places like “Juniper Mountain,” in Idaho, where despite conclusive evidence that juniper trees have been present since the early settlers, the eponymous species is considered an invasive that must be removed. Places like the 22 remaining leks in the Cave and Lake Valley watersheds, also in Nevada, where 199,00 acres of sagebrush and juniper woodlands are slated to be “treated,” that is, mowed, chopped, burned and poisoned. Not only will these projects not benefit sage-grouse, they are also very expensive. Unfortunately they are exactly the type of projects Congress’ newly approved budget (and the American taxpayer’s tax dollars) will pay for.
The agencies budget windfall also means money for things like more fences to keep cows out of important riparian habitat, which one would think should be good for grouse. However, sage-grouse often die from collisions with fences in their habitat, and the shiny plastic flags strewn across miles of barbed wire throughout the west will do little to eliminate the lethal toll these livestock barriers take on sage-grouse.
No amount of money can keep a cow from stepping on a sage-grouse nest, unless that money is spent paying the ranchers not to graze or retiring the permits in sagebrush habitats. But none of the money in the spending bill is going towards common sense solutions that remove the primary threat. Instead, it is directed towards salving the wounds that ongoing grazing will continue to reopen. It’s a shame too, because while Congress fights over money, sage-grouse are fighting to survive the steep downward trajectory of their population.
Previous stories about sage grouse habitat management
Western Watersheds Project Litigates 145,000 Acre Vegetation Treatment Project in Nevada July 17, 2013
The Cowboy Plan to Save Sage Grouse….. Making Things Worse December 14, 2011
Sage Grouse Pushed Two More Steps Toward Endangered Species Act Protection by Nevada. February 6, 2013
Travis Bruner is the Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a national conservation group with a mission to restore western watersheds and public lands for wildlife.
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In addition, we are going to hear forever about how much the taxpayer was dinged to save a bird that did not get saved.
Last June I had the pleasure of exploring the northern section of Cave Valley, some 90 miles south of Ely, Nevada. Here I saw elk and deer, and I’ve read that 100 antelope make the area home, as do sage grouse. This area of the small and remote valley, with high elevation wilderness to the west (South Egan Range) and to the east (Mt. Grafton), is exceptionally well vegetated and contain much surface water, due to springs and seeps that make the area so critical to wildlife.
That the BLM intends to “treat” an area that is so remarkable is beyond comprehension.
What about the wildlife that depend on what the BLM intends to destroy? The agency is notoriously short-sighted.
This is worrisome. Time and again, instead of addressing the real problem, human expansion and all that goes with that, we’ll blame wolves and coyotes, grizzlies at ‘carrying capacity’ (which will get smaller and smaller), junipers, crows and cormorants, anything but ourselves. It’s only a temporary fix, and reminds us that we have no intention of curtailing ourselves for the future, just take more and more.