The House Natural Resources Committee sent a letter to the Interior Department Thursday expressing concern about the scientific integrity of and the imposition of what it said were arbitrary deadlines on a decision to potentially list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

The letter, which was addressed to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Daniel M. Ashe, calls for the department to turn over detailed documents and information related to the science supporting the sage grouse listing under the ESA, the planning strategies for sage grouse conservation, and the Obama administration’s 2011 closed-door, multi-species ESA settlement with multiple groups.

“This potential listing of the sage grouse could restrict grazing, farming, mining and energy production on as much as 160 million acres throughout 11 western states,” wrote Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA). “There continues to be concerns that the department’s work on this listing is being driven by deadlines negotiated by litigious groups and not based on sound science or current data.”

The sage grouse population has been on the decline across the West, and states and other federal agencies have stepped up their efforts to search for a way for development, including oil and natural gas drilling, to coexist with the bird.

In March 2010, the Interior Department took the middle ground between conservationists and energy industry interests in determining that the greater sage grouse would not be designated as an endangered species — for now (see Daily GPI, March 8, 2010). It subsequently issued two instructional memorandums (IM) to help guide both immediate and longer-term conservation actions that are designed to conserve the greater sage grouse and its sagebrush habitat in 10 western states (see Daily GPI, Dec. 30, 2011).

Secretary Ken Salazar, who hails from a Colorado ranching family, said scientists at the FWS concluded that the bird, whose domain is in the West, deserved to be included on the endangered species list but that other species faced more imminent threats.

In October 2009, a study was released that showed that the sage grouse habitat is declining at a sharp rate. The three-year study, published in PLoS ONE, an open-access scientific journal, was one of the first to look at drilling’s impact on a specific species (see Daily GPI, Oct. 26, 2009).

Under the terms of a 2011 settlement, the administration has essentially handed over prioritization of endangered species listings to special interest groups, and as a result, Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and FWS have set in motion an unprecedented number of decisions between now and 2015, Hastings said.

There are as many as 98 separate planning strategies under consideration in 68 various areas in several states, and the FWS has set dozens of self-imposed deadlines to publish and finalize proposed planning strategies. “It is concerning that this significant project, which describes as its strategic vision to preclude the need to list sage grouse, has instead become the latest example of the department’s agenda being driven by litigation, closed-door settlements and court deadlines, rather than guided by sound science and best available data and information,” Hastings said.

He called on Interior to estimate how much it has spent on sage grouse conservation measures through December 2012, and to break out the number of full-time equivalent employees who have worked on the sage grouse listing, as well as provide the committee with all documents related to the ESA listing of the sage grouse.

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