science environment

Sage Grouse Provision In Defense Spending Bill Worries Veterans

By Courtney Flatt (OPB)
July 20, 2018 10 p.m.
A male greater sage grouse struts its stuff on Bureau of Land Management land in this April 21, 2012, photo.

A male greater sage grouse struts its stuff on Bureau of Land Management land in this April 21, 2012, photo.

Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

Conservationists and some veterans are up in arms over a must-pass defense spending bill. Right now, the bill includes


a provision

that would prohibit adding a controversial and imperiled bird to the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

For the second time, a Utah Republican is attaching the greater sage grouse to military spending legislation.

Rep. Rob Bishop contends the two seemingly unrelated issues are connected: protecting sage grouse could hurt military training.

Some greater sage grouse have important mating areas on military bases and training areas — including the Yakima Training Center in Central Washington.

Conservation, sporting and veterans groups have opposed the provision. Garett Reppenhagen, with the advocacy group Vet Voice Foundation,  called the rider "ludicrous," saying he fought with the 1st Infantry Division in the army as a sniper and cavalry scout to help protect public lands.

"I've never heard of a time that endangered species or any sort of habitat conservation interfered with training. We do, as a military, have a proud tradition of conservation," Reppenhagen said. "We integrate (endangered species) into our training plan and write off areas as things that are biologically contaminated areas or historic preservation sites — things that can't be destroyed. It makes for a more realistic battlefield when you're training."

He said the military can schedule training around “sensitive times,” when species are breeding, for example.

Related: The Military's Surprising Role In Protecting Endangered Species

This rider would also keep the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle off the Endangered Species List.

In 2015, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, attempted to add a similar rider to the National Defense Authorization Act.


In a hearing earlier this year, Bishop quoted a 2015 report, saying the sage grouse rider should be in the defense bill.

Related: Trump Administration Proposes Changes To Limit The Endangered Species Act

“The military has said this has had a concern and an issue on military readiness because it has limited the ability of using all the ranges we do have,” Bishop said.

Bishop went on to say that current state plans to protect sage grouse will not be affected by this rider — and those plans will work. This rider will just prevent any other administration or judge from adding the sage grouse to the Endangered Species List for a decade.

“With this language we can also insist with this language that the military reservations will be sacrosanct and will not be impacted by a listing of the species,” Bishop said.

Reppenhagen speculated the rider may be closer to passing this time around because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is not in D.C. for health reasons. McCain had previously worked to keep the sage grouse rider out of the defense spending bill.

“It’s a slippery slope if we open up every sort of pet project for any politician to attach to the National Defense bill. It’s just going to be used as a vehicle for the future to put these poison pills and other non-related defense issues into a bill that’s supposed to provide the tools and training that troops use to defend this country,” Reppenhagen said.

Sage grouse are spread out over 11 Western states. They’re known for their quirky mating dances. Efforts to save the imperiled bird have proved controversial. Adding sage grouse to the Endangered Species List could lead to more land use restrictions for ranchers and industry groups.

So, to avoid that fate, ranchers, conservationists and government agencies worked on a plan to keep the greater sage grouse off the Endangered Species List. That decade-long, hard-fought compromise led to what many hoped would be a new way to protect species on the brink, although some have expressed concerns about the current plans.

Recently, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has announced he wants federal officials to take another look at those plans, worrying groups who say reworking the plans will open up public lands to more mining and drilling.

Conservationists and ranchers have said there hasn't been enough time to test the current plans out — before changing them.

“Bottom line is this plan has not been allowed enough time to work so that we can see if it will work to stop concerning trends,” said Dan Morse, conservation director with the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

This most recent defense rider would be another hit to sage grouse, which live in the sagebrush ecosystem that’s also home to more than 300 other species. That’s why conservation groups say saving the sage grouse could help more than just one bird.