Prospects for sage grouse rider’s survival improve

By Nick Sobczyk | 05/21/2018 07:03 AM EDT

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has been trying for years to use defense legislation to address sage grouse protections. He may succeed this year.

Debate about sage grouse protections will again be part of deliberations surrounding the National Defense Authorization Act.

Debate about sage grouse protections will again be part of deliberations surrounding the National Defense Authorization Act. Cindy Goeddel/Defenders of Wildlife

Sage grouse policy has once again made it into the defense authorization bill thanks to House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), but this year, his provision may have a shot at becoming law.

That’s because of a notable absence: Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain.

The Arizona Republican is a stickler for germane policy in the annual National Defense Authorization Act. In 2015 and 2016, he helped foil Bishop’s sage grouse efforts during the conference process, panning them as unrelated to the military.


But as McCain continues treatment for brain cancer, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) will likely handle the defense bill on the Senate side. The longtime ally of the energy industry is likely to be more amenable to Bishop’s proposal.

"If they’ve got it in there, we ought to be able to support that in conference," Inhofe told E&E News last week.

Bishop, for his part, demurred when asked last week whether he thought he had better chances this year.

"We’ll have to see what happens," he said. After a pause, he added, "You obviously know why I think it could happen, but I can’t say why I think it could happen, so we’ll leave it at that."

Bishop’s amendment — added during the NDAA markup earlier this month — would bar the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years and delist the American burying beetle, a critically endangered species.

It would also prevent FWS from listing another bird that roams Inhofe’s home state: the lesser prairie chicken.

Inhofe — who has been leading the Armed Services Committee in McCain’s stead — said the prairie chicken language is "very important" to him.

"This issue has been with us now for almost 10 years," Inhofe said.

The issue is that federal sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken habitat managers can restrict military training ranges and airspace in vast swaths of the American West. The problem would be worse, Bishop and other Western lawmakers say, if either species were to be listed under the ESA.

"We are dealing with this issue in a broad sense in our committee, but this amendment specifically goes to the 27 ranges and the 19 training areas that are in the western United States," Bishop said at the NDAA markup.

Bishop says the Department of Defense supports his amendment, but Democrats cry foul, noting that DOD specifically said it did not need alterations to sage grouse policy last time Bishop brought the issue up (E&E Daily, April 27, 2016).

Opponents say it’s a handout to the oil and gas and mining industries, which have long sought flexibility to drill in sage grouse habitat, and sets bad precedents for endangered species policy.

"They’ve always in the past tried to connect this to military training, and we’ve gotten letters from the Department of Defense saying that’s not true," said Garett Reppenhagen, a former Army sniper and now Rocky Mountain director for the Vet Voice Foundation.

"Anybody in the military will tell you that we’re going to adjust whatever we need to do to make sure that we can do our training."

Environmental groups add that there is little justification for delisting the American burying beetle, which now occupies a fraction of its historical range.

Either way, the language will face its first test when the NDAA hits the House floor this week.

A coalition of House Democrats — led by Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva of Arizona — has introduced an amendment to strike the provision, as well as language in the bill that would extend the Navy’s take permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

It’s not clear whether the GOP-controlled Rules Committee will allow the amendment to come up for a vote, though it will likely reject most of the more than 500 amendments that have been filed. The panel will meet this evening to debate the full bill and again tomorrow to decide which amendments are in order.

In a statement of dissenting views, Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee wrote that Bishop’s provision could "jeopardize" the entire bill.

The language would "set a terrible precedent for the management of species in need of conservation by having Congress micro-manage specific species," they wrote.

The Senate Armed Services panel, meanwhile, will spend the week marking up its version of the bill in closed sessions, first in the subcommittees and then with the full panel.

There’s another potential enemy of Bishop’s language on that side of Capitol Hill. The Senate Armed Services ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, is from Rhode Island — where the American burying beetle is the state insect.

Land withdrawals

Sage grouse isn’t the only Bishop-backed natural resources provision in the defense bill.

Another section of the NDAA would permit indefinite land withdrawals from the Interior Department for military installations with an integrated natural resources management plan, which requires the military to show its impacts on wildlife and habitat.

Federal law currently requires reviews of military leases every 25 years, including full environmental impact statements.

The language is nearly identical to a bill, H.R. 4299, that passed the Natural Resources Committee in November and was included in last year’s House NDAA before getting struck down in conference.

The military spends millions of dollars on environmental impact statements for withdrawals, and yet Interior has never rejected a renewal request, the Natural Resources Committee wrote in a memo on the bill last year.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, say renewing every 25 years is not much of a burden, especially because it promotes a public dialogue about how Interior manages its lands.

Of particular concern is a current proposal by the Air Force to expand training and testing in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The service will have to complete an EIS and get congressional approval, but environmentalists fear the Bishop proposal could undermine that process.

"The process is working as intended, which is we’re having a public debate about whether that withdrawal is appropriate," said Mark Salvo, vice president for landscape conservation at Defenders of Wildlife.

Offshore drilling, climate

The Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore drilling could also come up during House debate on the defense bill.

Though the administration has said Florida’s coast is off the table, members from the Sunshine State are pushing two amendments to prevent drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

One, from Democratic Reps. Charlie Crist and Darren Soto, would extend the current moratorium in the eastern Gulf until June 30, 2029.

The other, from Reps. Kathy Castor (D) and Francis Rooney (R), would bar all oil drilling and leasing off the Gulf Coast and the Straits of Florida.

The proposed amendments come after a Pentagon report this month suggested that expanded drilling could "severely" impact military training without proper mitigation (Greenwire, May 11).

Another proposal from Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) would seek to remedy a major problem for coastal military communities: sea-level rise.

Taylor’s proposed amendment would allow DOD to fund highways affected by sea-level rise through the little-known Defense Access Road program. Taylor secured similar language in the House military construction spending bill’s report, which passed committee this month (E&E Daily, May 9).

Also included in the base bill is a provision that would beef up DOD’s climate change and energy resilience planning requirements (E&E Daily, April 10).

The Rules panel will have to sift through hundreds of other proposed amendments, including:

  • A proposal, from Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), to create a "Climate Solutions Challenges" prize competition at the Department of Energy. The amendment is an iteration of a bill Lipinski introduced in February (E&E Daily, Feb. 27).
  • An amendment, from Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), to create a database of military personnel and veterans suffering health effects from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
  • A proposal, from Michigan Reps. Dan Kildee (D) and Jack Bergman (R), to compel DOD to follow state drinking, ground and surface water standards for PFAS.

Schedule: The Rules meetings are Monday, May 21, at 5 p.m. and Tuesday, May 22, at 3 p.m. in H-313 Capitol.