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More state control of wildlife conservation examined at U.S. Senate hearing

Author: Tom Ramstack - October 11, 2018 - Updated: October 29, 2018

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A male sage-grouse tries to impress a group of hens, at left, near the base of the Rattlesnake Range in southwest Natrona County, Wyo. (Alan Rogers/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Senate committee is considering legislative options to boost support for state programs to protect threatened wildlife like the sage grouse.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing Wednesday to examine state conservation and wildlife management programs.

The hearing was partly a response to complaints by state officials — including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — that federal courts sometimes overreach with their authority under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the witnesses suggested more partnerships between landowners and state environmental officials to avoid conflicts like the one that preceded a federal court ruling in Colorado last month.

Mike McCormick, a farmer testifying on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Mississippi organized an effort called the Honey Bee Stewardship Program.

The Mississippi State University Extension Service coordinated habitat restoration and environmental standards to protect honey bees by government agencies, farmers and beekeepers, he said.

“This process was such a success that it was adopted by several other states and is included in the President’s Pollinator Partnership Action Plan,” McCormick said in his testimony. “Much of the success can be attributed to the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency supported the effort but allowed local partnerships to develop and implement the plans.”

In the Colorado case, a U.S. district judge ruled the Gunnison sage grouse must stay on the endangered species list, which entails designating more than 2,200 square miles of land as critical habitat that cannot be damaged by farming or other commercial enterprises. The Gunnison sage grouse are found mostly in southwestern Colorado’s sagebrush country.

She mentioned human intervention in the birds’ habitat as a primary threat to their survival.

The Endangered Species Act classifies wildlife as “endangered” if they are on the verge of extinction. They can then qualify for immediate government protection.

John Kennedy, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, mentioned the difficulty in protecting sage grouse during his Senate testimony Wednesday.

“Because sage grouse habitats change throughout the year, state managers must develop strong partnerships and work closely with private landowners, federal land management agencies and state land managers,” he said.

Kennedy also mentioned a separate dispute over the Yellowstone National Park grizzly bears. A federal judge in Montana ruled last month the grizzlies must be returned to the endangered species list.

“Wyoming citizens are extremely frustrated by this decision and the resulting transfer of management authority back to the federal government,” Kennedy said. “This decision is proof positive that the Endangered Species Act is in need of reform.”

Kennedy’s criticism of the Endangered Species Act is similar to Trump Administration Environmental Protection Agency policy but far different from Colorado environmentalists.

Gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis signed on to a letter from nearly 100 of his fellow congressmen last month that asked House leaders to reject any proposed changes that might lessen the federal government’s authority under the law.

“Ninety-nine percent of species that have been protected under the Endangered Species Act have been saved from extinction and many are again thriving,” the letter said.

The letter criticized nearly a dozen provisions in the Interior Department’s proposed annual budget that would weaken its authority to protect wildlife.

“One [provision] would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from taking any steps to list the greater, Columbia Basin, or bi-state sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, even if these populations decline further,” the letter said.

Polis, D-Boulder, continued his plea for protection of the sage grouse in comments Wednesday to Colorado Politics.

“In Colorado, we have strived to foster collaboration between the federal, state and local levels of government to responsibly preserve and protect the greater sage grouse and its habitat,” Polis said. “Protecting this cherished bird is only possible with the help of ranchers, grazers, landowners and conservationists alike.”

The greater sage grouse is a bigger bird than the Gunnison sage grouse, which is in more danger of extinction. Both can be found in Colorado.

Polis added, “We can’t allow Congress to undermine the state and local communities’ ability to continue this vital work.”

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack