The Bird’s the Word, the West is on Fire, & the Only Real Solution

The Bird

Would she or wouldn’t she? Everyone was waiting to see if Interior Secretary Jewell would place the sage grouse on the endangered list. Interior had a court-ordered September 30 deadline to make a decision. At stake was the future of 173 million federal acres.
On the 21st Interior said they would have a big announcement the next day and on the 21st I predicted that the bird would not be listed; that loud hosannas would be shouted about the collaboration process undertaken by the feds, the states and private individuals; the Endangered Species Act would be praised; and that some of the more radical elements in the environmental community would challenge the decision in court.
How did I know they wouldn’t list? I drew that conclusion because a listing would have resulted in a legislative delisting by the Congress and given a huge boost to efforts to amend the ESA. The enviros wanted neither of those outcomes, so a no listing was pretty easy to predict. Let’s see what did happen.
Secretary Jewell announced the “not warranted” decision, based largely on the amendments to 98 different federal land use plans in 10 states and the over 4 million private acres that were put in conservation easements (and USDA’s outlook that this will increase to 8 million private acres restored or preserved by 2018). And as predicted, she lauds the collaboration and defends the ESA.
“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” said Jewell. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation – ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today.”
While endorsed by the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, as predicted, the more radical elements in that community were not happy.
A spokesman for the WildEarth Guardians says, “Working on a comprehensive plan between multiple states is absolutely the right idea, but the level of protections they are applying in some of the grouse’s priority habitat area is too weak to maintain sage grouse there,” and informs us, “The land management plan is getting heavy scrutiny from our legal team.”
It’s hard to believe, but our friends at the Western Watersheds Project actually think the problem is livestock grazing. One spokesman says the Secretary “seemed determined to put a happy face on the future of the American West” but failed to “block spring cattle grazing.” The organization’s deputy director said, “It’s obvious from Interior’s propaganda that they have not accurately identified the threat that livestock pose.” And she continued, “Simply throwing money at the problem through the Sage Grouse Initiative is like putting an expensive bandage on a gaping chest wound. The failure here was to staunch the flow and limit livestock’s destructive impacts by significantly altering grazing management.”
The industry itself seems to be divided between those who are heaving a sigh of relief the bird wasn’t listed and their national organizations. “The administration came to the logical decision not to list the sage grouse, but went ahead and forced through their land use plans, which are just as concerning as a listing,” Public Lands Council President Brenda Richards said. “Wildfire and development are the primary threats to the sage grouse and their habitat, yet this administration is systematically wiping out multiple-use and ranching through regulatory overreach,” said NCBA Federal lands Committee Chairman Robbie LeValley. “It’s clear that these plans are more about managing away from productive uses, rather than actually protecting the bird.”
But a Nevada rancher spoke at the Denver press conference and told an audience that included four Western governors and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell he supported the process and the land use plans. He said his daughter had watched him tie streamers on barbed wire to keep the bird from flying into fences and that her best friend was a U.S. Geological Survey biologist named Katelyn. He explained that his 11-year-old daughter helped him overcome his own distrust of government while working on the ranch to save the bird. “In this little girl’s life, government is her partner,” he said.
That last quote will haunt me for a long time.
But at least your humble servant was spot on in my predictions.

Fires & Management

The West is still burning and discussions on federal management continue. Most recent is a powerful editorial by the folks at Capital Press.
They beautifully take care of those who say the increase in the number and size of fires is caused by the drought. The editors explain that for the years 2005 to 2014, an average of 6 million acres has burned annually and that most of those 10 years predate the four-year drought in California or the other Western states. The problem, they say, is “poor management of federal land, which has allowed forests to become overgrown and bulging with fuel for fires.”
And they have a solution. “They need to be logged, either through thinning or through commercial timber sales. And more livestock grazing is needed to reduce the amount of vegetation that piles up as fuel for the next wildfire.”
That begs the question, though, of how that shift in policy would be brought about. Many will say a new administration can amend the regulations and policies to reasonably allow the prescriptions to take place, but I believe such a shift would be insufficient.
I’ve personally been involved in such “shifts” and they don’t last.
While I was at Interior we changed the grazing regulations to allow the BLM to focus its resources on the problem allotments and grant more flexibility to the well-managed allotments. That was thrown out by the courts.
I initiated changes in the BLM water manual to allow ranchers to hold the water rights if they funded the project. That is no longer policy.
We brought back the District Advisory Boards for local input into management. That was wiped out by Babbit’s Rangeland Reform.
I’ve watched these “shifts” back and forth now for forty years, and the end result has been destroyed rural economies, devastated school districts and all too often, families torn apart.
No, we don’t need a shift in policy. We need a permanent change, and that means the majority of these lands should be removed from federal ownership. Only then will the West receive the relief it so deserves.
Till next time, be a nuisance to the devil and don’t forget to check that cinch.
Frank DuBois was the NM Secretary of Agriculture from 1988 to 2003, is the author of a blog: The Westerner ( and is the founder of The DuBois Rodeo Scholarship