Greater sage grouse protection measures do not adversely affect the military, and there is no national security reason to restrict federal conservation plans, according to letters from Pentagon environmental officials sent to House Democrats.
The letters, released publicly by House Democrats on the eve of a defense authorization bill markup in the House today, set the stage for a fiery debate over the bird.
"Overall, the Department of Defense would not expect a significant impact to military training, operations or readiness should the greater sage grouse be listed under the endangered species act," wrote acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Daniel Feehan.
Feehan, along with environmental heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force, also made the case that pre-existing laws and policies adequately insulate military bases from being adversely affected by any endangered species listing.
All four officials wrote in response to inquiries from Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who serve as ranking members of the House Armed Services and Natural Resources committees, respectively.
Smith and Grijalva initially wrote to the military branches in March in order to pre-empt a repeat of last year’s defense authorization bill, when Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) inserted language into the bill that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage grouse as endangered for 10 years (E&ENews PM, April 27, 2015). They told military officials that while they "understand that actions being taken to conserve the greater sage grouse would not adversely affect military training, operations or readiness," they wanted to clarify the Pentagon’s stance on the issue "in anticipation that this may once again be an issue of discussion during the upcoming consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017."
They were right. Since the pair sent their letter, Bishop again inserted sage grouse language into the House version of the defense authorization. This year, his provisions would allow states with sage grouse management plans to block federal plans and prevent the Interior secretary from changing the bird’s conservation status until Sept. 30, 2026 (E&E Daily, April 26).
Yesterday, House Democrats used the DOD letters as a rallying cry, accusing Bishop of using the defense bill to deal with "issues that shouldn’t be in there at all."
"They want to put Democrats in the position that we are against defense," Grijalva said. "I think it is a waste of time and actually superfluous to what we have to do in this bill."
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who last year led the charge during the Armed Services markup to purge sage grouse language, vowed to do the same at today’s session.
"The defense bill really isn’t an appropriate vehicle for that, so we will be talking about it," she said. "We will do whatever we have to do."
For his part, Bishop defended his language accusing House Democrats of politicizing the military.
"Those were private letters that do not imply on official position," he said.
Bishop said that, despite the letters, he continues to believe that sage grouse protections "have a huge impact" on the military and added that the issue is also about the freedom of Western states to deal with the concern as they see fit.
"To vote against this is to deny the reality of what is happening in the West," he said. "Unfortunately, there are people on this committee who do not live there and who will take a military statement and make it political."
No significant affect
Over at the Pentagon, Feehan wrote that DOD has reviewed sage grouse conservation plans from the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service and "[does] not believe these plans will affect military training, operations or readiness to any significant degree."
The military already has mechanisms in place to handle endangered species and to work with Interior to ensure that changing species’ status does not affect the military, Feehan wrote. All military bases have written their own integrated natural resources management plans (INRMPs) to handle endangered species on-site, all of which are approved by FWS.
"We know of no case where greater sage grouse conservation measures included in an INRMP have prevented an installation from meeting its military mission responsibilities," Feehan said.
Those INRMPs also act as a sort of insurance policy for the military in the event that a species becomes listed as endangered, because the Endangered Species Act exempts military lands covered by INRMPs from being designated critical habitat. The military also has an additional "safety net" in a portion of the Endangered Species Act that would allow the Defense Department to claim a national security exemption if FWS wanted to pursue conservation measures that would negatively affect military operations, Feehan wrote.
The military has never used that provision, though Feehan wrote that it could "if we were ever to reach a total impasse with the Fish and Wildlife Service."
Together, those exemptions "are sufficient to protect the interests of the Defense Department without additional legislation from Congress," he wrote.
All three military branches agree with Feehan.
"We currently believe that existing statutory authorities adequately protect the interests of the Department and we do not anticipate a need for additional legislation from Congress," Army Assistant Secretary for Installations, Energy and Environment Katherine Hammack wrote.
She noted that the Yakima Training Center in Washington state is home to the greater sage grouse but stated that "the greater sage grouse conservation measures in the INRMP have not prevented Yakima Training Center from meeting its military mission."
Similarly, the Air Force wrote that it currently spends $200,000 managing the greater sage grouse at 14 affected bases.
"The impacts on Air Force military training and testing are expected to be manageable if the greater sage grouse is added to the Endangered Species List and if Air Force lands are exempted from Critical Habitat designation," Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations Jennifer Miller wrote.
While the Air Force expects that it would be exempt from a critical habitat designation, Miller wrote that changes to installation INRMPs could increase the service’s grouse investment to $500,000 if a base were listed as critical habitat.
Navy Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Environment Karnig Ohannessian agreed.
"The Department of the Navy does not believe that listing of the greater sage grouse would impact military training, operations or readiness," Ohannessian wrote. "Based on our INRMPs, we would expect our installations to be exempt from the designation of critical habitat."
While the military’s letters were written before the sage grouse provision was inserted into the fiscal 2017 defense authorization, other groups are taking note.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday expressed concern that the sage grouse will again become an issue in the defense authorization.
"I hope it is not," he said. "I have heard that is the case, but I hope that it will not be the result, because the sage grouse was removed from the prospect of being listed as endangered, and I thought that had taken off a lot of the pressure on that."
Last year, McCain expressed disappointment that sage grouse provisions in the defense authorization bill were a major sticking point in the conference committee between House and Senate legislators.
"[It] was really unfortunate because that has nothing to do with the defense bill," he said (E&ENews PM, Sept. 29, 2015).
Meanwhile, 23 wildlife groups have written members of the House Armed Services Committee asking them to support a Tsongas amendment to strike the sage grouse language.
"The Department of Defense did not request the sage-grouse provision, nor will it benefit from it," the letter said. "Please support the Tsongas amendment to strike this misguided and inappropriate language in the [National Defense Authorization Act]. Please also oppose any other damaging amendments that undermine the [Endangered Species Act] or sound management of our federal public lands."
A coalition of 56 Western sportsmen’s groups has also written to Smith and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) opposing "the inclusion of any language in any legislation that seeks to delay, defund or otherwise undo the greater sage grouse federal conservation plans on millions of acres of national public lands."
"Our groups see no need for Congress to act on the sage grouse beyond ensuring full funding for implementation of federal plans and funding for private lands conservation through the Farm Bill and other vehicles," the letter stated.
Reporters Abby Kessler and Kevin Bogardus contributed.