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Thursday
Dec062012

The Grouse Wars: Spotted Owls of the Prairie States Threaten Energy Production

The federal government has announced it’s opening 430 square miles (278,000 acres) in the Atlantic to wind development: areas 10 miles off Rhode Island in state waters and, in federal waters, areas for lease in Nantucket Sound (off Cape Cod, Massachusetts) and 23 miles off Southern Virginia’s shore. These wind power leases join others in federal waters off Delaware and in New Jersey state waters.

Strong local resistance to the sheer numbers of turbines needed to generate power means any development of offshore wind power may take awhile.  And before starting any project, buoys are deployed to determine if the location is suitable for efficient wind production.  It took a full 18 months to win federal approval for placing the first such buoy, in federal waters off New Jersey.

Beyond wind power, fossil fuel-based energy production on private lands is at an all-time high while production on federal government-managed lands is completely stalled. 

Offshore, the federal government has offered oil leases no one wants.  Bids were made on only 3% of such offshore leases offered. Why? Because without huge federal subsidies (such as those offered to the “renewables” of solar and wind), such leases are simply not economically viable.  Not all costs can be passsed along to the consumer in the form of higher pump prices or hidden taxes.

And you may have missed it, coming as it did on a Friday just a few days after the presidential election, but those working in America’s on-shore energy-producing prairie states sat up and took notice. 

It was the first salvo in the prairie states grouse wars.

Praire States Grouse Wars

On Friday, November 9, 2012, the Obama administration announced it would close over 1.6 million acres formerly dedicated to energy exploration in the West.  Closed.  Shut down.  Stay out.  No can go, Joe.

The federal government reduced 2 million acres available for shale oil exploration down to 677,000 acres (about 26,000 acres in Colorado, 357,000 acres in Utah, 293,000 acres in Wyoming).  Another 431,000 acres in Utah originally open for potential tar sand exploration, were reduced down to 130,000 acres.

The federal Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cited “environmental concerns” for the proposed changes, removing land with “wilderness characteristics” and land that is “sage-grouse habitat” related to the needs of the greater sage-grouse.

Production of energy is not assured on any of the remaining 807,000 federally-managed acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming kept open for fossil fuel energy exploration.  Exploration is a long way from production and heaven help you if you find grouse on that land.

The greater sage-grouse is found in eastern California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.  In other words, greater sage-grouse habitat overlaps North America’s energy-producing prairies.

To complicate the issue furthur, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was considering an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing for another grouse, the lesser prairie chicken, a native of Texas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.  In just Texas alone, the bird’s range covers land producing 70% of the state’s oil production, fully 20% of the nation’s domestic oil supply. Add in the Gunnison sage grouse - another 1.7 million acres of “habitat” in Colorado and Utah - and you can see why westerners are grousing about federal regulaton of state lands.

Grouse have been nicknamed the “spotted owls of the prairie” since it’s expected grouse rules and regs will do to energy producers what the spotted owl did to loggers and sawmills.

Serious About Wildlife

The states are responsible for wildlife health, a responsibility they take seriously.  So, even when the federal government triggers an ESA listing, the BLM is forced to coordinate with the state agencies. In this instance, it’s state agencies in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, all operating within the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy. For the lesser praire chicken, the Candidate Conservation Agreement With Assurances holds promise for the coodination of multi-state management for abundance and habitat health - while allowing people to continue to make a living using the land.

While planning processes such as these are supposed to be transparent, it’s unclear if the locals were consulted on the fed’s November 9 closure of more land in their states. The states have 30 days to protest and 60-days to force the federal government to come into some sort of consistency with local and state policies.  After that, the federal government will render a decision for implementation.  Will the feds ignore the states?

The BLM has listed various “indirect” takes on the greater sage-grouse as the primary threat to the birds health: energy production, any sort of infrastructure, habitat fragmentation, invasive weeds and fire.  Mention of “fire” as a negative for Grouse health appears misplaced since fire has a role to play in a healthy prairie.  Long-term fire supression is probably a greater threat than simply “fire.”

BLM also makes no mention of “direct takes” to these ground-nesting birds by eagles and ravens or by canids such as coyotes, foxes and wolves. For example:

  • Utah: Nonnative red foxes devastated sage-grouse populations from an abundant 4,000 birds to just 150.
  • California: The bird-loving Audubon Society sued in support of reducing the numbers of nonnative red foxes ravaging populations of the least tern, clapper rail and the threatened western snowy plover.

Sage-Grouse Science Questioned

The California-based Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability’s (CESAR) has raised concerns about the government’s greater sage-grouse science.  CESAR’s director is Craig Manson, a Former Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife & Parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

CESAR’s BestScience.org sage-grouse project called attention to:

Significant mischaracterization of previous research, substantial errors and omission, lack of independence in authorship and peer review.

Worse yet, BestScience.org condemned the lack of transparency in the scientific process, stating:

We were unable to replicate the analyses published in the [primary resource document for the 2010 listing determination] as neither the data used in the analysis, nor the algorithms used for Population Viability Analysis are publicly available.  This made it impossible for us to directly evaluate or replicate results independently.  Thus, since the results are neither reproducible nor verifiable, the study fails the fundamental litmus test of sound science.

BestScience.org added:

A close review of the analysis and data demonstrates flaws significant enough to completely undermine its conclusions.  Specifically, both Garton et al. (2009, 2011) and the FWS (2010) downplayed or ignored known issues with the data provided…, errors in formulas used, errors of omission, and bias with their analytical method.  These errors were exposed when the Colorado Division of Wildlife, commissioned independent scientists to review its contents.  These comments, which were formally submitted to the FWS, were uniformly ignored.

While BLM won’t share how it developed its greater sage-grouse science, we continue to believe active and educated management by man can dramatically improve chances for the all the birds’ survival. 

We’d love to see open competition between the “managed” BLM land and land actively mangaged by private producers for energy production and healthy grouse populations. 

That’s a Grouse War we’d love to see waged - and won.  

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Photos courtesy of BestScience.org

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