It would have been “the spotted owl on steroids,” as Utah’s director of the Department of Natural Resources said at an editorial board meeting earlier this year.
He wasn’t trying to get you to imagine some gigantic bird scooping up dogs and cats with a hoot of indifference. He was talking about the sage grouse and the chance that it might be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
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That didn’t happen. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday it was taking a pass. If you didn’t hear a lot of rejoicing or groaning, that’s likely because this is far from the end of the story.
Remember the spotted owl? They sure do in the Northwest, where the bird was listed as endangered about 20 years ago. I’ve been through a lot of those old logging towns up there. It isn’t pretty.
But while we argue endlessly over sage grouse, earthquakes caused by fracking and a host of other environmental effects from energy extraction, real enemies, perhaps using real steroids, continue to threaten the world.
That’s what makes these types of decisions so hard. And a bunch of strange and beautiful birds that live in 11 western states have no clue of their place in all this.
Critics will tell you the logging industry was on the decline before the spotted owl became an issue anyway, and that the owls had little do with continuing that trend. That is a matter for debate.
What isn’t debatable, however, is that the energy industry in the West is not in decline and that this is really good news when it comes to battling our enemies.
When it comes to wiping out bad guys, we’ve tried the military and we’ve tried diplomacy, with little lasting effect. What we haven’t tried is denying our enemies of their economic lifeblood. The more oil and gas the U.S. produces, the more nervous various dictators and tyrannical regimes become.
And yet we can’t ignore the tradeoffs.
In Washington, House Republicans last week moved a bill out of committee that would end the ban on oil exports. Democrats are vowing to stop it.
The ban became law in 1973 during the Arab oil embargo, a time when Americans believed they needed to keep as much of their locally produced oil as possible as a hedge against artificial shortages. Today, with pumps pulling more oil and natural gas out of the ground than ever, the motivations are completely different. If we can sell enough oil to allies, they won’t have to rely as much on Russia, Venezuela and Middle East.
Take customers away from the bad guys and you take away their power.
Which leads us back to those little sage grouse, birds smaller than chickens whose numbers have been dwindling.
When he met with the combined Deseret News/KSL editorial boards, state Natural Resources Director Mike Styler said oil and gas development is a small threat to the birds in Utah. Here the threats are invasive plant species, pinion junipers (which act as perches for predators) and wildfires.
But in many other states, including Wyoming, their existence threatens energy extraction, and visa versa.
Frankly, this is one instance where states have taken the proper measures to solve a problem that is complex and many-faceted. Utah alone has 13 sage grouse management areas.
“We know how to grow sage grouse,” Styler said. This may be why the birds escaped being labeled endangered.
But why is this far from over? For one thing, the Obama administration has enacted a plan of its own that puts severe restrictions on energy extraction near sage grouse habitat on federal lands.
For another, presidents change; plans change. Federal officials may decide to list the grouse anyway in a few years. Right-left issues never really go away. There are many places difficult to escape, but few compare to the political ground between a rock and a hard place.
For decades now, Americans have had to live with the reality that various tiny animals can halt bulldozers and keep landowners from profiting.
There are strong arguments for protecting endangered species, which have their place in a complex ecosystem. But there are human tolls, as well, and sometimes they come on steroids, too.
State collaborations lend a hopeful tone to the sage grouse controversy, but it wasn’t settled for good on Tuesday.