New Range War Looms in the West Over Sage Grouse Protection

Monday, 12 May 2014 09:44 AM

By Drew MacKenzie

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The battle over Cliven Bundy's cattle may pale in comparison to the war that could erupt in Western states over plans to list the sage grouse as an endangered species.

The confrontation over lands under the control of the federal Bureau of Land Management is pitting environmentalists and animal activists determined to preserve the spiny-tailed pheasants against energy companies, cattle ranchers, and gold miners, The Washington Post reported.

In Bundy's case, his cattle were "trespassing" on territory that the government had designated a protected territory to preserve the endangered desert tortoise.

Now the sage grouse habitat could lead to a showdown similar to the Bundy uprising that had armed militia facing off against government agents and hired federal cowboys.

The looming range war involves 165 million acres of government land, which could soon be off-limits to developers hoping to make a fortune by mining the land for minerals or fuels, or just simply for grazing purposes.

Western state governments are also likely to be opposed to the order of protection for the bird, as they would be able to reap the benefits of billions of dollars in tax revenues from various corporations and cattlemen.

But if the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species, it would put stringent limitations on the use of a vast swath of federal land, which could lead to an army "of new Bundys all over the West," the Post reported.

The avian furor brings back memories of the bitter debate in 1990 when the Northern spotted owl was listed as a protected species, preventing timber companies from cutting down trees in millions of acres of the Pacific Northwest. But the sage grouse listing could have a far bigger financial impact in Western states.

The Post reported that large areas of the sagebrush are undergoing oil and natural gas exploration, while energy companies have applied for thousands of applications for new wells. Solar and wind farms also pop up all over the landscape, and there's even a gold mine in rural eastern Nevada.

"It's going to affect agriculture, oil and gas, wind, all kinds of different industries," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance. "We're talking about such a wide-ranging impact."

Although experts estimate that 2 million sage grouse inhabited the West when Lewis and Clark first noted them in 1805, their numbers have dwindled to 200,000, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In 2010, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that it was a threatened species, and decided that it would make a decision by September 2015 whether to issue regulations regarding its habitat or to put this issue on hold.

In the meantime, the battle is heating up in Bundy's home state, where the Nevada Cattlemen's Association had urged its members to deny state Department of Wildlife employees access to private land to protest plans to safeguard the sage grouse.

Ranchers are angry that protecting the birds will harm their cattle by cutting off millions of acres of grazing lands, the Review-Journal said.

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