By Kirk Robinson, Executive Director, Western Wildlife Conservancy
One thing many people do not realize – including many biologists, I have discovered – is that the Endangered Species Act has two purposes. One is to recover threatened and endangered species to substantial portions of their ranges; and another is to protect the ecosystems upon which threatened and endangered species depend. It’s this second part that many biologists and other folks are not aware of. It is a significant part of the Act, however, because ecosystems are not the same as a species.
Sage grouse collectively are not an ecosystem. But they depend upon sage-brush steppe-type ecosystems, including native bunch grasses, such as we find in parts of Utah and a lot of Wyoming. This type of ecosystem includes a lot more than just sage grouse and sage brush – it includes as well pygmy rabbits and various native grasses, a huge variety of insects and birds and reptiles and mammals, and even fishes. Thus, to conserve the sage grouse is to conserve this greater community of organisms and the watershed that sustains them.
Why are some people – notably lots of Utah politicians (remember the $2 million of your dollars our legislature gave to Ryan Benson to work against sage grouse listing!) – against listing the sage grouse as a threatened species? It’s not because they just don’t like the bird or are by nature malicious.
It’s because they don’t want anything to stand in the way of kinds of kinds of exploitation that would tend to destroy these natural values. This includes oil/gas/coal development, livestock grazing, mining, cutting forests, building dams and motorized recreation. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, but sometimes they come with heavy costs in terms of habitat/species loss, soil erosion, viewscape degradation, watershed degradation, etc.
Some people are content to accept the losses, even if they are irretrievable, while others (environmentalists and conservationists) are not willing to acquiesce to the demands of unregulated profiteering. We are living through a time when the conflict between these two value systems is increasing to the point that it constitutes both an ecological and a governmental crisis. The editorial addresses this conflict briefly:
New York Times editorial: