Guest opinion: Science has to govern sage grouse debate

2014-08-15T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Science has to govern sage grouse debateBy CHRISTOPHER MERKER The Billings Gazette
August 15, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Of the primary threat to sage grouse, let us be clear what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has always said: It's all about habitat.

If the Petroleum Association had stopped its recent commentary at “the primary threat to sage grouse is the loss of habitat (period), then I wouldn’t have felt the need to write. It was the hyperbolic ranting and willful ignorance that tipped the scale, however.

As anyone with a functioning web portal knows, it is broad-scale habitat loss that has hurt sage grouse populations. The impacts due to oil and gas across sage grouse habitats have been massive. Anyone who has driven through or flown over these fields can attest to that. We know that mosquitoes are using industry wastewater to spread West Nile virus, and we know that habitat fragmentation occurs at industrial scales due to under-regulated development.

The Wyoming Plan is fawned over by the same industry that seeks exclusions from it. Yet it is widely regarded by grouse experts to be the bare minimum, and then much influenced by politics instead of science. Keeping the grouse population from extinction is hardly the same as keeping it healthy. In fact, that plan is proving to be falling short when it comes to keeping birds around based on new data from Wyoming.

David A. Galt might also wish to call his high school science teacher for a review of the scientific method. I am not sure where he jumped to the conclusion that sage grouse are increasing when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department recently suggested a large area of northeastern Wyoming (an area that has seen extensive oil and gas development) be closed to hunting due to still-declining populations.

Galt’s willingness to throw hunters under the bus shows that he holds those of us who hunt and fish in the same regard as polecats, coyotes and ravens, since he systematically wishes to eliminate us all from the prairie. While it might make for good barroom blather, trying to dig a hole in the ocean and eliminating predators and hunters won’t do anything to forestall a listing of the bird, or even help them return to healthy numbers. Neither is a primary threat.

I do agree with Galt on one salient factor, and using his own words verbatim: “It is critically important for all management decisions to be based upon unrefuted scientific evidence and need, rather than broad assumptions made by a select few who have chosen to ignore the facts.”

It then becomes critical to actually use science rather than rely on personal gut feelings and anecdotes. Galt only does the latter. He provides no real evidence to back up his claims.

My conservative father once said, “Son, with rights comes responsibilities.”

Galt takes no responsibility for his industry, but of course, expects full rights to exploit common resources for his own personal, short-term gain. He would also make the grouse, hundreds of other species, and those of us who care about Montana beyond what’s in our pocket at the end of the day, to shoulder the long-term impacts. That, to me, is shocking, especially given the billions of dollars in subsidized welfare that the oil and gas industry currently enjoys. The industry could easily take responsibility and fund Gov. Steve Bullock's grouse plan with their newfound wealth, but I won’t hold my breath.

Merker is a certified wildlife biologist. 

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow The Billings Gazette

Popular Stories

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Deals & Offers

Featured Businesses