WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2015 - This fall is shaping up to be key for federal wildlife policy. First, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is due this month to decide whether the sage grouse needs to be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision will be a critical test of the state and federal voluntary conservation efforts that have been aimed at avoiding the listing.

If FWS decides that the listing is unwarranted it will be a victory for farmers, ranchers, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, among others, that have been pushing the voluntary approach to protecting and restoring the bird’s habitat.

“That would send a strong signal to the agriculture community that their investments are making a difference and provide the catalyst for a different kind of politics,” says Eric Holst, associate vice president for working lands at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Farmers and ranchers received exactly the opposite signal from FWS last year when it went ahead with a listing of the lesser prairie chicken, said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas. 

That decision, recently overturned by a federal judge in Texas, could discourage farmers from participating in future conservation plans, he said. “There was a huge amount of effort that went into putting together that (prairie chicken) plan,” Neugebauer said. The judge ruled that the agency had incorrectly determined that voluntary conservation wouldn’t be enough to protect its habitat. 

NRCS last month announced plans to invest an additional $211 million over the next three years in its 11-state, public-private partnership conservation effort for the sage grouse. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the project will go forward regardless of whether the bird gets listed.

Both the sage grouse and several other regional ESA issues could be the subject of negotiations as congressional Republicans negotiate with the White House over a fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill. December is the target for wrapping up the bill.

The Senate and House versions of the Interior-Environment appropriations bill that funds FWS include a number of riders aimed at stopping or suspending listing decisions, including on the sage grouse as well as the lesser prairie chicken and the gray wolf. The Senate bill includes provisions to block the agency from enforcing its listing of the lesser prairie chicken and would ensure the delisting of the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lake states.

Despite the court order, lawmakers would likely still seek to use the budget deal to block a listing of the lesser prairie chicken, Neugebauer said. The ruling “doesn’t make it go away,” he said. 

A policy rider in the fiscal 2015 budget blocked FWS from carrying out a listing of the sage grouse but didn’t stop the agency from deciding whether it could be listed. The policy rider is due to expire Sept. 30 with the rest of the 2015 bill, but it would likely be carried forward at least temporarily when Congress enacts a continuing resolution to keep the government in operation until a fiscal 2016 bill can be enacted.

The budget negotiations are expected to center around a plan to increase spending levels for both domestic and defense programs. Domestic programs would get one dollar for every dollar in extra spending added to defense, said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “I rebel against that, but think it’s probably a fait accompli because the Democrats won’t allow us to bring up any appropriations bill.” In return, Republicans expect to get support for some of their policy riders, he said.

The question is how many of those riders Democrats will accept. The most critical to agriculture is one that would block the administration from implementing its rule re-defining the streams, wetlands, ditches and other features regulated by the Clean Water Act.


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