The Cattleman’s Sage Grouse Rant

An op-ed piece by Mike Deering, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Director of Communications, lays out an argument to let ranchers handle conservation of the sage grouse without involving the protection of the Endangered Species Act:

The wackos – as I still prefer to call them – have successfully weaseled their way to the front steps of BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. Late last year, the agencies released a plan to implement sage grouse protections on 45 million acres of federal lands with the goal of preventing the listing of sage grouse. While that’s a worthy goal, the plan fails to recognize that grazing is responsible for retaining expansive tracts of sagebrush-dominated rangeland, stimulating growth of grasses, eliminating invasive weeds and reducing the risk of wildfire. These services can only be provided by ranches that are stable and viable. Without grazing, sustaining and increasing the sage grouse population would be nearly impossible.

Grazing prevents fires. Fires cause death. Death equals barbecued chicken. It is that simple.

OK, let’s posit that Deering is giving it to us straight for a moment. What does he say next?

Ranchers stand ready to work with the government to prevent the listing of the sage grouse, which has the potential to put public lands grazing to a complete halt (according to Dave White, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, March 7, 2012).

Hmmmm. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the NCBA is altruistically looking out for the best interests of sage grouse as a species. It sounds like a group that recognizes that a major resource may no longer be available to them and is taking steps to prevent losing that resource for their own use.

That line about “barbecued chicken” is an instance of rhetorical framing applied to sage grouse in the article.

“massive chicken barbecue”

“that barbecued chicken I mentioned earlier”

“the chicken debacle – officially called the greater sage grouse”

“ignore the chicken and set their sights on ranchers”

“not protect the chicken”

This isn’t just what passes for folksy charm in the NCBA. Likening sage grouse to chicken blurs distinctions between a native species in undisputed decline and a ubiquitous introduced domestic species. How could something that is called chicken deserve protection under law, after all?

Now lets drop the notion that Deering’s argument stands on its own. No, Mike, it is not “that simple” that ranching practices will produce a thriving population of sage grouse. The particular threat that Deering concentrates on, fire in sage habitat, is not always and everywhere a bad thing. Sage grouse need a particular mix of sage and other plants, and fire at a particular rate helps clear too-dense sage and restores a balance between cover and plants supporting forage for sage grouse. So a simple “no fires” policy is not a win for sage grouse.

Let’s have a look at another part of Deering’s rant:

I admit, those are some pretty inflammatory words. But these extremists deserve every ounce of it and I will back it up with one of many examples. Let’s hone in on that barbecued chicken I mentioned earlier. Extremists, for the most part, have refused any meaningful reform to the Endangered Species Act, which has resulted in a less than two percent species recovery rate over the past 40 years. Instead of looking at ranching as part of the solution, they spout rhetoric over facts. Look no further than the chicken debacle – officially called the greater sage grouse. Instead of working aggressively to prevent the listing of the sage grouse on the Endangered Species List, they are working aggressively to ignore the chicken and set their sights on ranchers. Say what? Yeah, their end goal is to end ranching; not protect the chicken.

Deering doesn’t mention here what, exactly, constitutes “reform” of the ESA. One might take it to mean specific things that would improve its record on the metric of “species recovery rate”, i.e., how often listed species become delisted. (A comment I’ve seen elsewhere notes that this is the wrong metric to use to evaluate the ESA; instead, one should look at the rate of extinction of listed species.) One would be wrong, though; the NCBA is on record with its list of proposed “reforms” to the ESA, and these have nothing at all to do with making the ESA more effective. They would, instead, guarantee less effectiveness of the ESA, putting in place automatic delisting criteria, providing exemptions that let certain classes of people off the hook for not following ESA regulations, placing even more burdens on those seeking to have a species listed, providing money to private property owners to implement policies, and adding logistical and paperwork burdens in the process of listing any species under the ESA.

I don’t know why activists would want to ‘aggressively prevent the listing of the sage grouse on the endangered species list’. Deering certainly doesn’t inform us as to why an activist should consider that a bad thing. Nor is the claim that protecting sage grouse is not the aim of people urging conservation supported in Deering’s rant by anything other than his assertion.

I’m not anti-rancher. But I am pro-sage grouse, and I think that preserving sage grouse is going to require more than stopping fires on grazing lands, which is the only thing I hear as a concrete policy coming out of the NCBA. The record of action on sage grouse conservation is a continual off-putting of listing as an endangered species, which is due to intense political action, not biological reality.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.