Grousing about Zinke

Locals say secretary stirring up settled issue

A young sage hen looks out from among foliage.

A young sage hen looks out from among foliage.


The Elko Free Press recently reprinted a news report in its this-day-in-history column: “July 10, 1918: Game warden Bachman is one busy man these days, just before the opening of the sage hen season. He has his eye on some ‘sooners’ who have made a practice of getting out a few days before the opening day, and it will go hard on them if they try to slip one over on the officer. … From all information which has come to him from various sections of the county, the sage hen crop will be a record breaker this year and he anticipates that there will be enough for every hunter.”

That breezy assumption that sage hen would always be there for hunting was already being questioned when that article was originally published. Two years earlier, in 1916, noted zoologist William Temple Hornaday—who was instrumental in the revival of the buffalo—wrote a piece titled, “Save the sage grouse from extinction; a demand from civilization to the western states.”

Sage grouse, known as sage hen in Nevada, covered sagebrush lands from the Pacific coast to the Dakotas. But listing it on the Endangered Species List provokes reactions from developers, mining and ranchers—and politicians tend to respond to such influential groups. Hunting, development, wildfires, grazing and other factors have reduced the bird’s numbers to perhaps 500,000 in 11 Western states.

At one point, the federal government had a deliberate policy of sagebrush eradication. Rachel Carson wrote in 1962’s Silent Spring that this policy—which reduced the sage hen’s shelter, food and nesting ground—meant that the day could come when “the grouse will disappear along with the sage.”

The striking bird has received coverage this month in entities like National Geographic, Seattle Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mother Jones, Popular Science, Time, High Country News, Jackson Hole News, Idaho Falls Post Register, Toronto Star, Bend Bulletin, Bismark Tribune, the Missoulian, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Ammoland, the Hill (a congressional newspaper), New York Times (at least four articles), Christian Science Monitor, ABC, NBC, CNN, and dailies in Houston, Winston-Salem, the Dalles, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

In London, the headline over a story about the sage hen and other species reads, “These six species are about to be sacrificed for the oil and gas industry.”

The Obama administration, in 2015, rather than issue a one-size-fits-all rule for the sage hen states, worked with Westerners to develop state plans for the protection of the bird without an endangered species listing but received little credit for that achievement from critics like Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei. Heller has argued that all threats to the bird are natural, not human caused.

Which side speaks for locals?

Then, in 2017, Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of Montana announced plans to open sagebrush lands in 10 states to mineral extraction and grazing by reversing those Obama protections for the bird.

“I am particularly interested in assisting the states in setting sage-grouse population objectives to improve management of the species,” Zinke said.

When Zinke announced his plans, Heller and Amodei offered praise, while Gov. Brian Sandoval reserved judgment.

Heller said, “As I have consistently maintained, allowing states like Nevada to have a seat at the table as an active participant in the discussion surrounding conservation efforts is central to the viability of the sage grouse. Moving forward, I am hopeful that the Department of the Interior will partner with Gov. Sandoval and the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to begin targeting the real threats to sage-grouse and their habitat: invasive species, wildfire and wild horse overpopulation.”

Sandoval later said he had no objection to Zinke exploring the issue, but the governor also joined other governors who said they were content with the state plans. In addition, Sandoval had a specific objection to Zinke’s “population objectives.”

Amodei was more concerned with procedure. In a letter to Zinke, he wrote, “Do you have a set framework in which to implement the recommendations made by the state? Will you be sharing conclusions on the feedback sent from the state? In addition, what is the timeframe. … Finally, do you have a process for more dynamic mapping as we move forward?”

Others say the dispute is a case of D.C. versus locals, and that the state plans were tailored to local needs.

In an essay published in the Elko Free Press, West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona wrote, “In these days of devastating wildfires, often poorly planned growth, and competing land uses, there is enough uncertainty for sagebrush lands and the greater sage-grouse population, which has been on the decline for decades. That’s why it’s hard to watch the U.S. Department of the Interior walk back carefully developed management plans for the species and its habitat. Three years ago, the sage-grouse management plans were created through a bipartisan partnership of farmers and ranchers, industry representatives, conservationists, hunters and anglers, outdoor recreationists, and local and state leaders across the West. Finalized in 2015—with approval from the presidential administration—the plans saved the grouse from an endangered species listing.”

In Colorado, zoologist Terry Riley told the Public News Service, “A lot of federal agencies, a lot of state agencies, a lot of NGOs [non-governmental organizations], a lot of public citizens, a lot of local communities and businesses all came together to pull these plans together. And making major changes now, after we went through all this work, is just not a very good plan.”

Riley told us pulling all parties back together for a unified response to Zinke is difficult: “There were many involved in the original plan amendment. They all have the opportunity to comment on this most-recent revision, but there is no way to know whether they will engage. Those that think the proposed revisions are deceptive might not react constructively. I believe that getting the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department engaged as a partner in decisions is a good thing.”

Nevada Wildlife Federation President Robert Gaudet wrote in November, “But the sage-grouse plans don’t shut down energy development. A recent report by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers says that 79 percent of the areas with medium or high potential for energy development fall outside grouse habitat.”

As ethical scandals have piled up around Zinke, his influence has been reduced, and, last week, legislative negotiators stripped from a Pentagon funding bill language that would have banned listing the bird on the endangered species list.Ω