The humble sage grouse has earned a new moniker in Montana and other western states: the spotted owl of the prairie. That description started as a joke, but for the tens of thousands of Montanans who earn their living in agriculture or energy development it’s no longer a laughing matter. That’s because there’s a very real threat this bird could be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The result would dramatically impact Montana’s economy.
It’s worth noting that sage grouse—these birds in desperate need of federal protection—are game birds in Montana and other western states. You can shoot them. And there are no plans to restrict their hunting if they are listed under the ESA.
It’s no coincidence that sage grouse habitat also happens to intersect both the largest untapped coal deposits in the country as well as large parts of the Bakken oil field. It’s clear the primary motivation to focus on sage grouse for ESA listing is to provide yet another tool for special interest groups to block energy development. And in this obstructionist toolbox, there’s no heavier sledgehammer than the Endangered Species Act.
What an interesting irony, then, that so much effort is going into “protecting” one bird from energy development, when the Obama administration is turning a blind eye to hundreds of thousands of other birds being killed by wind energy turbines each year- including protected birds like bald eagles.
Recent research puts the annual butcher’s bill by wind farms at 573,000 birds. Included in that number are 83,000 hunting birds, like eagles and hawks.
Most bird deaths are violations of the ESA, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or other protective acts. Indeed, there are examples of the Obama administration prosecuting power companies for birds killed by power lines and oil companies for birds that drown in waste pits. But to date, not a single wind energy company has been prosecuted for bird deaths.
It’s not true to say the feds are doing absolutely nothing to enforce these laws—in one example a wind company was ordered to employ “spotters” to watch for eagles and shut down turbines when they get too close. How’s that for government efficiency?
It’s a dirty little secret, but the Obama administration has been granting renewable energy companies “take” permits that allows them to kill bald eagles with impunity for up to five years. On December 6, the Interior Department announced they were extending the length of those permits for up to 30 years.
It would seem that not all birds are created equal, at least for the Obama administration and their environmental allies. Wind energy has a literal “free pass” to kill bald eagles, but traditional energy development could get shut down in eastern Montana because of the potential that it could disturb sage grouse habitat.
Let’s be honest about what’s driving this process—a political agenda that cares much more about putting shackles on energy development than it does about protecting birds.
The duplicity shown by Obama administration in applying the law underscores the point that the ESA is more about politics than it is protecting and restoring endangered animals. Though enacted with noble aims, over the years the ESA has been corrupted, used arbitrarily to reward rent-seekers and punish political foes, and been used with devastating effect to destroy jobs and economic opportunity.
Several Montana industries now find themselves with an ESA target on their back in the form of the sage grouse. Montana officials are scrambling to craft a sage grouse management plan that satisfies the feds and prevents ESA listing. But regardless of the management plan they enact, a heavy blow will be dealt to energy development in our state. In other words, even without an outright ESA listing, the Act is still being used to force states into arbitrarily limiting development.
The way the ESA, and other wildlife protection laws, have been selectively applied is shameful. It’s time the ESA is restored to its original purpose—restoration of wildlife populations that need our help. And it’s time that federal officials start applying those protection laws evenly among all industries.
Rep. Schwaderer works for House District 14. He is a member of the House Education, Local Government, and Taxation Committees. He also serves on the Interim Joint State-Tribal Relations Committee.