By Thomas Mitchell
Facts are stubborn, but statistics are pliable.
In April 2012 Gov. Brian Sandoval set up a sage grouse advisory committee. Governors before him had done likewise. This past session the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 461 setting up a program to protect sagebrush ecosystems in order to protect sage grouse habitat.
These various committees have produced countless hours of droning meetings and reams of documentation filled with impenetrable jargon. All aimed at trying come up with plans, maps, mitigation strategies and whatever it takes to prove to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service by a deadline of Sept. 30, 2015, that the sage grouse should not be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Such a listing would place huge swaths of rural Nevada and other Western states off-limits to mining, grazing, farming, fences, oil and gas exploration, roads, power lines, wind turbines and solar panels, various forms of recreation and more — killing jobs and economic development.
Almost all of the discussion is about conserving habitat and mitigating activities that might harm the birds. Hardly anyone is questioning the Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim that the sage grouse population is dwindling toward potential extinction.
But in a paper published in February 2012 a group calling itself the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR) questioned the validity of the assumptions and data and math used by the Fish and Wildlife
Service to reach its conclusions about the threat to sage grouse. The question atop the opening page is: “Science or Advocacy?”
CESAR claims the service relied almost exclusively on a monograph, “Studies in Avian Biology,” by a private group called the Cooper Ornithological Society and says much of the material was written by employees of federal agencies who basically peer reviewed each other’s work.
CESAR targeted several key chapters that were sited most frequently in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to recommend listing of sage grouse.
One chapter carries a list of “threats” to the grouse — including converting sagebrush to crop land, livestock grazing, oil and gas wells, wind and solar farms, roads and the general “human footprint” — but makes no mention whatsoever of predators or hunting, even though 207,000 sage grouse were killed by hunters between 2001 and 2007. That only counts the birds that were retrieved and not ones that may have been mortally wounded but escaped the hunters’ game bags.
The center’s review of “Avian Biology” found insufficient data to support the premise that sage grouse populations have declined from those present prior to European exploration and settlements, “particularly in light of the very small numbers of sage grouse documented by the first Europeans.”
Further, the estimates of current populations of sage grouse are based on counting only male grouse in known leks or mating grounds. Without knowing the number of females or even the ratio of females to males, such a method for estimating the sage grouse population is statistically invalid. Fluctuations in the number of males may not be indicative of the population as a whole.
As for the assumption that oil and gas exploration destroys sage grouse habitat, CESAR notes, “The net effect on sage grouse populations is not clearly identified by data. Energy development has been underway in sage grouse habitats for nearly a century, and yet the areas with significant development (even development with no mitigation) are sage grouse population strongholds.”
One of the chapters used by Fish and Wildlife even makes the observation that 44 percent of lek populations appear to be declining, to which CESAR asks whether this means 56 percent are stable or increasing.
Under the Endangered Species Act economic factors cannot be considered when determining whether to list a species as threatened or endangered, but must be “based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available.”
The CESAR study points out, “We were unable to replicate the analyses published in the monograph as neither the data used in the analysis, nor the algorithms used for Population Viability Analysis are publicly available. This made it impossible for us to directly evaluate or replicate results independently.
Thus, since the results are neither reproducible nor verifiable, the study fails the fundamental litmus test of sound science.”
Perhaps the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council should concentrate on questioning the underlying premise that sage grouse are threatened — instead of spending countless hours and an untold number of dollars on solving a problem that may not exist.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.