The sage grouse isn’t just a bird – it’s a proxy for control of Western lands



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Male sage grouse at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming.
Tom Koerner/USFWS, CC BY

John Freemuth, Boise State University

The Trump administration is clashing with conservation groups and others over protection for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), a bird widely known for its dramatic mating displays. The grouse is found across sagebrush country from the Rocky Mountains on the east to the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges on the west.

This region also contains significant oil and gas deposits. The Trump administration is revising an elaborate plan developed under the Obama administration that sought to steer energy development away from sage grouse habitat. Conservation groups are suing in response, arguing that this shift and accelerated oil and gas leasing threaten sage grouse and violate several key environmental laws.

This battle is the latest skirmish in a continuing narrative over management of Western public lands. Like its Republican predecessors, the Trump administration is prioritizing use of public lands and resources over conservation. The question is whether its revisions will protect sage grouse and their habitat effectively enough to keep the birds off of the endangered species list – the outcome that the Obama plan was designed to achieve.

By popping their brightly colored air sacs, male sage grouse create a sound that can carry 3 kilometers to attract females to their display ground.

Sage grouse under siege

Before European settlement, sage grouse numbered up to 16 million across the West. Today their population has shrunk to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000. The main cause is habitat loss due to road construction, development and oil and gas leasing.

More frequent wildland fires are also a factor. After wildfires, invasive species like cheatgrass are first to appear and replace the sagebrush that grouse rely on for food and cover. Climate change and drought also contribute to increased fire regimes, and the cycle repeats itself.

Concern over the sage grouse’s decline spurred five petitions to list it for protection under the Endangered Species Act between 1999 and 2005. Listing a species is a major step because it requires federal agencies to ensure that any actions they fund, authorize or carry out – such as awarding mining leases or drilling permits – will not threaten the species or its critical habitat.

Current and historic range of greater sage grouse.
USFWS

In 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that an ESA listing for the sage grouse was “not warranted.” These decisions are supposed to be based on science, but leaks revealed that an agency synthesis of sage grouse research had been edited by a political appointee who deleted scientific references without discussion. In a section that discussed whether grouse could access the types of sagebrush they prefer to feed on in winter, the appointee asserted, “I believe that is an overstatement, as they will eat other stuff if it’s available.”

In 2010 the agency ruled that the sage grouse was at risk of extinction, but declined to list it at that time, although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pledged to take steps to restore sagebrush habitat. In a court settlement, the agency agreed to issue a listing decision by September 30, 2015.

Negotiating the rescue plan

The Obama administration launched a concerted effort in 2011 to develop enough actions and plans at the federal and state level to avoid an ESA listing for the sage grouse. This effort involved federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private landowners.

California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming all developed plans for conserving sage grouse and their habitat. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management revised 98 land use plans in 10 states. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided funding for voluntary conservation actions on private lands.

In 2015 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that these actions had reduced threats to sage grouse habitat so effectively that a listing was no longer necessary. A bipartisan group of Western governors joined Jewell for the event. But despite the good feelings, some important value conflicts remained unresolved.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announces the sage grouse rescue plan in Colorado, Sept. 22, 2015. Behind Secretary Jewell are, left to right, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Notably, the plan created zones called Sagebrush Focal Areas – zones that were deemed essential for the sage grouse to survive – and proposed to bar mineral development on 10 million acres within those areas. Some Western governors, such as Butch Otter of Idaho, viewed this element as a surprise and felt that it had been dropped on states from Washington, without consultation.

The Trump administration wants to cancel creation of Sagebrush Focal Areas and allow mining and energy development in these zones. Agency records show that as Interior Department officials reevaluated the sage grouse plan in 2017, they worked closely with representatives of the oil, gas and mining industries, but not with environmental advocates.

Can collaboration work?

If the Trump administration does weaken the sage grouse plan, it could have much broader effects on relations between federal agencies and Western states.

Collaboration is emerging as a potential antidote to high-level political decisions and endless litigation over western public lands and resources. In addition to the sage grouse plan, recent examples include a Western Working Lands Forum organized by the Western Governors’ Association in March 2018, and forest collaboratives in Idaho that include diverse members and work to balance timber production, jobs and ecological restoration in Idaho national forests.

Warning sign in Wyoming.
Mark Bellis/USFWS, CC BY

There are two key requirements for these initiatives to succeed. First, they must give elected and high-level administrative appointees some cover to support locally and regionally crafted solutions. Second, they have to prevent federal officials from overruling outcomes with which they disagree.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2015 that an endangered listing for the sage grouse was not warranted, the agency committed to revisit the bird’s status in 2020. To avoid having to list the grouse as endangered, the Trump administration must provide enough evidence and certainty to justify a decision not to list, as the Obama administration sought to do. If Interior changes land management plans and increases oil and gas leasing, that job could become harder. It also is possible that Congress might prohibit a listing.

The ConversationFinding a lasting solution will require the Trump administration to collaborate with states and other stakeholders, including environmental advocates, and allow local land managers to do the same. Then, whatever the outcome, it cannot reverse their efforts in Washington. As Matt Mead, Wyoming’s Republican governor, warned in 2017, “If we go down a different road now with the sage grouse, what it says is, when you try to address other endangered species problems in this country, don’t have a collaborative process, don’t work together, because it’s going to be changed.”

John Freemuth, Professor of Public Policy and Executive Director, Andrus Center for Public Policy, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Is Earth’s ozone layer still at risk? 5 questions answered



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False-color image of ozone concentrations above Antarctica on Oct. 2, 2015.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

A.R. (Ravi) Ravishankara, Colorado State University

Editor’s note: Curbing damage to Earth’s protective ozone layer is widely viewed as one of the most important successes of the modern environmental era. Earlier this year, however, a study reported that ozone concentrations in the lower level of the stratosphere had been falling since the late 1990s – even though the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals, had been in effect since 1989. This raised questions about whether and how human activities could still be damaging the ozone layer. Atmospheric chemist A.R. Ravishankara, who co-chaired a United Nations/World Meteorological Organization Scientific Assessment panel on stratospheric ozone from 2007 to 2015, provides perspective.

What’s the prevailing view among atmospheric scientists today about the state of the ozone layer?

The overall picture is clear: The Montreal Protocol reduced use of ozone-depleting chemicals and will lead to healing of the ozone layer. This is an important goal because stratospheric ozone protects us from exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which can increase the risk of cataracts, skin cancer and other detrimental effects.

Of course, this forecast would be wrong if nations deviate from their treaty commitments, or if the scientific community fails to detect possible emissions of gases that could deplete the ozone layer but are not covered by the treaty.

The ozone layer in the stratosphere shields life on Earth from most UV-B and UV-C, the most harmful varieties of ultraviolet radiation.
NASA

Our understanding of stratospheric ozone depletion has grown steadily since the mid-1970s, when Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland first suggested that the ozone layer could be depleted by chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs – research that earned a Nobel Prize. In 1985 Joseph Farman reported on the formation of an “ozone hole” – actually, a large-scale thinning of the ozone layer – that develops over Antarctica every austral spring.

Further work by Susan Solomon and colleagues clearly attributed the ozone hole to CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals that contained the elements chlorine and bromine. They also highlighted unusual reactions that take place on polar stratospheric clouds.

In 1987, the United States and 45 other countries signed the Montreal Protocol, which required them to phase out use of ozone-depleting substances. Today 197 nations have ratified the treaty, which has prevented large-scale ozone layer depletion and its harmful consequences. Ozone-depleting substances are also greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, so phasing them out under the Montreal Protocol has also helped to slow climate change.

It takes decades to cleanse CFCs and other ozone depleting substances from the atmosphere, so even after the Montreal Protocol went into effect, their concentrations did not peak until around 1998 and are still high. Nonetheless, based on atmospheric observations, laboratory studies of chemical reactions and numerical models of the stratosphere, there is general consensus among scientists that the ozone layer is on track to recover around 2060, give or take a decade. We also know that the future of the ozone layer is intricately intertwined with climate change.

Ozone is constantly created and destroyed in Earth’s atmosphere as oxygen interacts with ultraviolet light, but man-made chemicals can disrupt this process.

What could explain the continued decline in ozone in the lower stratosphere that was reported earlier this year?

Of course, there are still some gaps in our knowledge of the ozone layer, and these two new reports have spotlighted such gaps.

The first study reported that although ozone concentrations were increasing in the upper stratosphere, they were still declining in the lower stratosphere. It suggested several possible causes, such as increases in uncontrolled, very short-lived gases produced from human activities that can deplete the ozone layer, as well as changes in atmospheric circulation due to climate change.

The second study identified rising levels of certain chlorinated chemicals, referred to as very short-lived substances, that could continue to deplete the ozone layer.

These reports were a little surprising, but not shocking. Scientists expect that we will continue to add to our knowledge of ozone layer, and our understanding will emerge as we digest these findings. The Montreal Protocol requires the scientific community to carry out scientific assessments of ozone depletion every four years precisely because we expect that new information like this will continue to emerge. One of those reviews is under way now and will be published later this year.

If industrial activities causing this decline in the lower stratosphere, Montreal Protocol member countries can amend the treaty to address these new threats. They did so in 2016 to phase out hydrofluorocarbons – coolants, used in air conditioners and refrigerators, that were found to be powerful greenhouse gases.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech to delegates from Montreal Protocol member countries in Kigali, Rwanda, Oct. 14, 2016. At the meeting nations agreed on a deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons from air conditioners and refrigerators.
AP Photo

If ozone levels in the lower stratosphere have been decreasing for 20 years, why are scientists just detecting that trend now?

Ozone levels change naturally from year to year, so scientists need to look at data over long time periods to tease out trends. The potential for short-lived chlorine and bromine gases to affect the ozone layer has been recognized for a while. More recently, scientists have been measuring concentrations in the atmosphere of dichloromethane, a liquid that is widely used as a solvent, and deduced that if it continues to increase, it will be a potential problem. Trends in emissions of these compounds are uncertain, but some recent results suggest that they are not increasing as rapidly as they appeared to be a few years ago.

Did these studies find any changes in the ozone hole?

No, they did not. They examined ozone changes within 60 degrees of the equator, not over the Antarctic. We do not expect very short-lived substance emissions to significantly influence the ozone hole unless they increase drastically, but this is one more reason to keep an eye on them.

Do these recent findings make you question whether the Montreal Protocol is effective?

No! Indeed, they strengthen my trust in it.

The ConversationWith any environmental agreement, whether it addresses ozone depletion, acid rain, climate change or other issues, it is important to be vigilant during the “accountability phase” – the period after policy decisions have been made and before the targeted results are expected. I am confident that if scientific findings warrant it, Montreal Protocol countries will take further action, and that my granddaughters will see the day when we eliminate the ozone hole.

A.R. (Ravi) Ravishankara, Professor of Chemistry and Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.