Coalition challenges science behind Interior grouse protections

By Scott Streater | 03/18/2015 01:14 PM EDT

A coalition of the oil and gas industry, mining groups and local governments in four states is formally challenging some of the core scientific documents the Interior Department is using to protect greater sage grouse habitat covering millions of acres of public lands across the West.

A coalition of the oil and gas industry, mining groups and local governments in four states is formally challenging some of the core scientific documents the Interior Department is using to protect greater sage grouse habitat covering millions of acres of public lands across the West.

Specifically, the coalition is challenging three reports under the Data Quality Act that the Interior Department is using to justify amending as many as 98 Bureau of Land Management resource management plans (RMPs) and Forest Service land-use plans to add grouse conservation measures.

These scientific reports produced in the last five years by BLM, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service are likely to be core documents FWS uses in deciding by September whether to propose listing the greater sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.


But the influential 2011 grouse management report by BLM’s National Technical Team (NTT) of sage grouse experts and an FWS-commissioned report in 2013 by a conservation objectives team (COT) that outlined rangewide sage grouse protection goals are riddled with factual errors, the coalition alleges. So, too, is a 2010 report from USGS that the service "relied extensively upon" in order to justify its determination in March of that year that the grouse warranted federal protection, the groups said.

Taken together, the three reports "advance a one-sided narrative that is simply not supported by the full body of scientific literature and data," according to an executive summary outlining the three challenges that was researched and written by a team led by Kent Holsinger, a Denver-based natural resources attorney.

The coalition — which includes the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, the American Exploration & Mining Association, and a total of 19 counties in Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Utah — asks Interior to "retract" the three reports "and their use in land use plan amendments and the upcoming listing decision" by FWS, the summary says.

"Alternatively, the agencies could issue amended reports that use sound analytical methods and the best data available while ensuring transparency and objectivity, and adjust their policies accordingly," it concludes.

Emily Beyer, an Interior spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said the agency is reviewing the latest challenges from the coalition.

It is up to Interior whether to agree to revise the reports or continue to use them. BLM has 60 days to respond to the complaint regarding the NTT report; FWS and USGS have 90 days to respond.

Beyer, however, pointed to comments from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell yesterday during a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies regarding sage grouse research and efforts by FWS to get right whatever decision they make on the status of the grouse.

"We are using sound science. We are using the best available science we have," Jewell said during a question-and-answer session after the speech. "We will take, at the Fish and Wildlife Service, all of the science into account, and we must do that because if we don’t do that and we come out with a decision on whether or not a listing or not is warranted, we know it’s going to be challenged in court. The question is will it be defensible."

The challenges drew immediate condemnation from conservation groups.

Mark Salvo, director of federal lands conservation with Defenders of Wildlife, said few other species "have been studied so thoroughly as sage grouse and their habitat requirements."

"Just because you don’t agree with recommendations to conserve the species doesn’t mean they’re wrong," Salvo added. "These data challenges will only drain resources away from current efforts to protect and recover sage grouse."

But Holsinger said the three challenges document "real issues with transparency and scientific integrity" that need to be addressed.

He said a careful analysis of data they obtained under the Freedom of Information Act "found extensive flaws in the agencies’ science, and demonstrated how they exaggerate impacts from human activities while ignoring real threats like predation, as well as natural fluctuations," he said. "The steadfast reliance and perpetuation of flawed information reveals these agencies aren’t as much interested in sage-grouse conservation as they are in controlling our economy and western way of life."

The challenges underscore how political the issue of sage grouse conservation has become, in large part because the bird has such a broad range covering millions of acres of public and private lands.

In 2010, FWS ruled that the greater sage grouse deserves federal protection but that other species took higher priority amid limited resources and placed the bird on a candidate list of species that may be given protections in the future.

Since that time, federal and state leaders have launched what the service acknowledges is an unprecedented effort to save the greater sage grouse, fearing that an ESA listing would cripple the energy, farming and ranching industries across the West.

Western leaders and energy industry officials have complained for some time that they want more information on the criteria FWS will use to determine whether the conservation measures and policies in place are enough to protect the grouse and keep it off the endangered species list.

While FWS is under a court-mandated Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether to propose listing the bird for ESA protection, Republicans in Congress last year successfully attached a legislative rider to the $1.1 trillion spending bill preventing the service from formally listing the sage grouse.

Jewell has said the legislative rider will not prevent FWS from issuing a decision by the deadline on the status of the bird.

The letter from the coalition of groups comes less than a week after a group of scientists wrote in a letter to Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that strictly following the NTT and COT reports isn’t enough to accomplish the goal of keeping the bird from being listed as threatened or endangered (Greenwire, March 12).

While the scientists said "many portions of the NTT Report provide a scientific baseline for managing greater sage-grouse habitat using consistent, measurable conservation standards," they noted that "other parts of the report contained questionable statements that are not supported by the best available science."

The industry and state coalition focuses on that point, accusing the NTT and COT reports, along with the USGS report, of "fundamentally and erroneously" ignoring "accurate population data" concerning grouse and the health of grouse breeding grounds, called leks, according to the executive summary of the challenges.

"The Reports were developed with unsound research methods resulting in a partial and biased presentation of information, and peer reviewers have found them to be inaccurate, unreliable, and biased," the summary says. "They contain substantial technical errors, including misleading use of authority and failure to address studies that do not support a federal, one-size-fits-all narrative."

The summary adds, "As a result, the Reports impetuously reach conjectural conclusions that are not scientifically supported, especially the frequently repeated but flawed assumption that a temporary decrease in lek counts equates to a population decline. Driven by policy considerations rather than defensible biological criteria, the Reports do not address specific cause and effect threats to [sage grouse]. Rather, they selectively present biased information while ignoring contrary information and the scientific method."

Click here to read the three challenges.