Military readiness and the conservation of greater sage-grouse- - an iconic and imperiled bird that makes its home in the American West -- and other imperiled species are not things most Americans would consider at odds with each other... because they aren't.
Unfortunately, certain members of Congress have taken it upon themselves to misuse the legislative process by inserting unrelated language into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) -- a bill that appropriates funding for our military operations -- in order to advance a special economic interest agenda at the expense of sage-grouse and other wildlife. Over the past few weeks we have seen several attempts in the House to hijack the NDAA to use it to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA). One provision would delay a potential listing decision for the grouse for at least 10 years, and transfer management of the species' federal habitat to western states. Another amendment in the House to the NDAA jeopardizes the recovery and survival of the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle by delisting the species under the ESA, removing their protections and preventing future listing and conservation action. And with the Senate now considering the NDAA, it is possible that similar language could be seen there.
These kinds of opportunistic attacks on imperiled species not only run contrary to the value that Americans place on conserving our nation's wildlife, but are destructive solutions in search of a problem with regards to the ESA and our nation's armed services. As someone who previously worked for the Army and with the Army for many years on wildlife conservation efforts, I know first-hand the Department of Defense does an excellent job of conserving and protecting our nation's wildlife on military lands across the country, all while maintaining military readiness.
Amid the ongoing congressional assaults on the ESA and the greater sage-grouse, it has been heartening to see that at least some members of Congress, including Representatives Niki Tsongas (D-MA) and Jackie Speier (D-CA), recognize the disingenuous true motives of these attacks on our natural heritage, and have come forth to speak out against such triviality.
Special economic interest amendments designed to block protections for imperiled wildlife have no place in a military spending bill. The Department of Defense did not request the sage-grouse provision, or the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle delisting amendments, and it does not need this language. Mark Wright, a DOD spokesman, even said "several DOD installations host resident populations of the greater sage grouse and that the military has 'known for some time that the grouse population has been in decline as the bird's preferred sagebrush habitat is fragmented and lost.'" DOD has already implemented management actions for sage grouse and, Wright said, "Because we have already undertaken these actions voluntarily, and expect to need to manage for the sage-grouse indefinitely, we do not believe the [ESA] listing decision -- regardless of the outcome -- will affect our mission activities to any great degree."
Let's be clear here: The greater sage-grouse, the lesser prairie-chicken and the American burying beetle are no threat to military readiness or national security. Military bases within the range of the greater sage-grouse have already developed and are implementing conservation strategies to protect the species which, under existing law, would exempt the affected military lands from any future designation of critical habitat under the ESA.
The only thing that the anti-ESA amendments in the NDAA would do is further endanger the continued existence of the currently listed lesser prairie chicken and the beetle, and seriously undermine ongoing conservation efforts for the greater sage-grouse. Sage-grouse have declined by more than 90 percent (with a 55 percent decline since 2007), and lost almost half their historic range. They don't need Congress adding another threat to their survival.
If we don't address sage-grouse conservation needs now, then saving the species will be even more difficult, expensive and disruptive in the future. The same goes for any species sliding towards extinction. The sage-grouse provision has nothing to do with military readiness or operations. It just reflects the fact that the NDAA is a "must pass" piece of legislation that has become a convenient vehicle for attracting anti-ESA amendments like a magnet being pulled through iron filings. Perhaps we should not be surprised when some of our elected officials stoop to such levels as using legislation that is critical to military readiness and national security to benefit special economic interests -- while putting our nation's wildlife, lands and water at risk. Congress should strip this unnecessary, irrelevant and offensive language from the NDAA since base commanders have demonstrated that endangered species conservation and military readiness can go hand in hand. It is not that hard at all to have both.