ESA: Something to Really Grouse About

One man’s dream, they say, is another man’s nightmare.

But in the case of Craig Dremann, a retired “ecological restorationist,” the dream of saving the habitat of the greater sage-grouse could become a horror story for land users in the 11 Western states where the bird lives and for Americans elsewhere who eat the food grown there or heat their homes with energy produced from the area’s natural gas deposits.

Dremann is a sincere, thoughtful advocate of environmental stewardship, who does not believe his vision for sagebrush country conflicts with the long-term interests of other users of this land. Yet, his potential success in using the Endangered Species Act (ESA) demonstrates there is something terribly wrong with this law.

For three decades, Dremann ran a business specializing in restoring native vegetation to degraded lands. He also taught land restoration to federal employees.

The inspiration to save the grouse came to him after a long drive seven years ago.

“In 1997, when I was doing some classes for the Forest Service in South Dakota and Colorado, I drove across the Great Basin in a big, giant ‘X’,” he said. “I went from Reno to South Dakota and then from Idaho to Bishop, Calif. Since I didn’t have anything else to do while I was driving I did what they call a ‘mega-transect”. What that means is every mile, when the odometer would click over another mile, I would take a note of what the surrounding vegetation looked like, what the quality was.”

Dremann likens what he saw to a tire worn down until the steel is showing. “They have got to get a new set of tires on that ecosytem,” he says. And he likens the sage-grouse to “the gas gauge on the car.” It indicates, he argues, that “the ecosystem is getting close to empty.”

In 1973, Congress had created the instrument Dremann needed to carry out his vision for gassing up and putting new tires on sagebrush country. It was ESA.

The act empowers any American to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list a species as threatened or endangered. If a creature is listed, activities deemed harmful to its “critical habitat” are curtailed.

In June 2002, using a Bureau of Land Management report on the sage-grouse as his back up, Dremann sent a seven-page petition to FWS asking that the bird be protected across its entire range–covering land from California to North Dakota, from Idaho down through Utah. This cost him, he says, “a couple of bucks” in postage.

In March and December 2003, 22 environmental groups filed two additional petitions asking FWS to list the grouse.

On April 21, FWS announced its preliminary determination “that listing the greater sage-grouse may be warranted.” The agency must make its final determination by a December 29 deadline. Interior Secretary Gale Norton makes the final call. But if she decides against listing the grouse, the law allows advocates to sue, seeking from federal judges what they could not win from federal bureaucrats.

In doing its analysis, FWS must rely mostly on information about the grouse provided by outside sources, including environmental and industry groups with a vested interest in the outcome. “We rely on publications and information from other people,” said Dr. Pat Diebert, the FWS biologist in charge of the sage-grouse analysis. “The problem is in nine months, which is all we really have to write this, we don’t have time to do a well-designed research study.”

In the Federal Register, FWS summarized what petitioners had cited as potential threats to the bird’s habitat. They included the basic trappings of civilization. I.e., “agricultural lands,” “irrigation projects,” “livestock grazing,” “methane development,” “mining and energy development, including windpower,” “military activities,” “urban/suburban development,” “necessary infrastructure (roads, powerlines, pipelines),” and “domestic pets.”

So who has the vision for the land that will prevail? The environmentalists? Or the farmers, ranchers, miners, and suburbanites with their roads, electricity, running water, and grouse-chasing dogs? If a balance is to be struck, who shall strike it? A bureaucrat trumped by a judge?

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a Republican from California, wants to change the way the government decides. “Updating and improving the ESA will be my committee’s top legislative priority in the 109th Congress,” says Pombo. “This law has been much more effective in generating conflict and frivolous litigation in its 30 year history than it has in actually recovering endangered species. A tune-up for the act is long overdue.” President Bush should put this at the top of his agenda, too.

Here is a suggestion: Make Congress vote up or down on every creature recommended for the endangered list. Make the President sign off. Then let these elected officials explain their decisions to the voters.