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Defense Bill Passes With Controversial Sage Grouse Measure Stripped Out

July 26, 2018

An important defense spending bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives — without a controversial sage grouse provision. It would have banned endangered species protections for the imperiled birds for 10 years.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized birds found in sagebrush country throughout 11 Western states. They’re known for their strange mating dances and striking appearance. And they’ve proven controversial to save.

A coalition of ranchers, conservationists and government officials have worked for more than a decade to come up with conservation strategies. The idea was to protect the sage grouse without evoking an Endangered Species listing.

Those conservation plans have come under fire — and so has the idea of protecting the bird's habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, wrote a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that would have kept sage grouse (and the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle) off the Endangered Species List for 10 years.

The argument was that important sage grouse mating grounds on military training areas could make it harder for service members to prepare for combat. The areas in question included the Yakima Training Center in Central Washington.

Conservationists and veterans groups said the measure was simply untrue and unnecessary.

“Sage grouse conservation and habitat management have nothing to do with our military operations or America’s national defense, and this poison pill would have undermined the years of hard work, compromise, and basic science that led to the historic land and habitat conservation that prevented the listing of the greater sage-grouse and protected the habitat of some 350 other species across the West,” said Jayson O’Neill, Western Values Project's deputy director, in a statement.

Veterans had argued that endangered species living on training areas can actually make for a more realistic battlefield experience.

There are places that you wouldn’t want to damage during battle, like hospitals or biologically contaminated areas. During training, veterans said, they use areas where protected species live to replicate those scenarios. The U.S. Army has done just that with streaked horned larks at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It’s an unlikely pairing — the military and endangered species — but vets said it works.

“Those promoting this rider attempted to hijack a bill that should not be a place for partisan squabbles, and instead passed quickly and efficiently for the safety and security of our men and women in uniform,” said retired Major General Paul Eaton, managing director of the advocacy group Vet Voice Foundation.

A House committee removed the measure from the spending bill. It passed the House Thursday without the sage grouse measure attached. The bill now heads to the Senate.


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Male sage-grouse conducting his breeding display.

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