Late summer has come to the American West and, across the sagebrush sea that extends over multiple states from Wyoming to New Mexico, greater sage grouse have moved on from their spring courtship rituals and are now raising their young.
These unique American birds face an uncertain future, even as they begin tending to the next generation. That’s because the National Defense Authorization Act is advancing in the House and Senate, and an amendment to that bill threatens the birds’ survival.
A rider tacked on to the House bill not only overturns a public planning process that involved multiple stakeholders, but also blocks protection for sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act for at least a decade. It’s a repeat of similar legislation that the House Natural Resources Chairman, Utah Republican Rob Bishop, tried to sneak into the defense bill last year.
I’ve served my country in both Kosovo and Iraq, and I understand that the defense bill has serious implications for military preparedness and national security. The national defense bill authorizes spending and programs for our troops, covering everything from food to fuel and ammunition. So, what do sage grouse have to do with national defense? Quite simply, nothing.
The Department of Defense didn’t ask for this amendment; a few Western lawmakers did. These elected officials seek to run their own agenda by inserting amendments onto the defense authorization bill, and insulting the men and women serving our country. Why are we again wasting everyone’s time with debates that don’t belong in the defense bill?
Already, a great deal of time has gone into creating conservation solutions for the sage grouse. Partnerships have been created among ranchers, energy developers, and federal, state and local governments across 11 states to save sagebrush habitat in the West. Additionally, the U.S. military has a strong track record of working with federal agencies and local communities to protect open space and wildlife habitat.
These anti-wildlife lawmakers are saying there’s a problem on sagebrush lands where none exists. We already have done the hard work to put in place a framework that conserves this iconic species and the landscapes of the West without hindering military training exercises. Thriving sage grouse populations indicate the overall health of their sagebrush habitat, which harbors 350 other species.
We’ve seen this shameful strategy of adding anti-environment riders to must-pass legislation time and time again in appropriations funding bills, and this year is no different: The 2017 Interior appropriations bill is chock-full of riders from lawmakers with an agenda that blocks or strips away endangered species protections for native wildlife.
It’s embarrassing to the citizens these lawmakers represent that this trend has now spread to the military, especially when the military itself clearly states that sage grouse conservation efforts have no impact on military readiness.
That’s right: The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness stated in an April letter that they “do not believe these (sage-grouse management) plans will affect military training, operations, or readiness to any significant degree.”
The Army, the Navy and the Air Force all have resources management plans for military installations, and none of them need any new greater sage grouse legislation in order to carry out their missions. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
I’m proud to call the Rocky Mountains my home and the sage grouse is a true icon of the West I love. The sagebrush sea needs to be protected for future generations. If it isn’t, the sage grouse, along with the many other species that depend on this unique landscape, could vanish forever.
Let’s get back to the business of protecting our country from real threats. To the few politicians and special interests pushing these damaging provisions, I say: Leave our natural heritage and our defense bill alone.
Our wide open spaces and wildlife are a big part of what we love and cherish about the United States. They are one of the reasons why so many brave men and women are glad to serve their country.
Garett Reppenhagen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He served as a cavalry scout sniper with the 1st Infantry Division in the U.S. Army and is now regional director for Vet Voice Foundation, based in Colorado.