The greater sage grouse, a black and brown grassland bird whose habitat encompasses parts of 11 western states, has taken on an oversized role in House-Senate negotiations over a conference agreement for the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill.
The House’s Republican leadership is insisting the compromise bill retain language from the House version barring the sage grouse from being placed on the endangered species list through 2025 even though the issue is only loosely connected to the use of military training grounds.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said he would not allow the final version of the annual defense policy to be considered on the chamber floor without that provision, in a bid to protect energy, mining and ranching interests, reports Defense News.
Both the “Big Four” — House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), and Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) — and the Pentagon oppose the language but Thornberry says his hands are tied.
“It’s a very significant issue to some people, but essentially, these decisions get made above my pay grade, as far as whether a bill can come back to the House without a sage grouse provision in it,” Thornberry said.
McCain’s primary objection to the provision is the likelihood that it would trigger a White House veto. “The veto would be sustained — and I don’t know what the point is because it has nothing to do with defense,” McCain said.
On the surface, it’s not clear why the issue is so intractable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last September determined the sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act. But advocates for private development object to the habitat conservation plans wildlife officials have imposed to protect the bird, according to the story.
“This is a proxy battle in their fight for state control of federal land in the West,” said a Democratic staffer for the House Natural Resources Committee.
The Armed Services committees have made significant progress on most other sticking points that could hold up agreement on a final authorization measure. But how lawmakers overcome the dispute over the sage grouse is anyone’s guess.
“The Obama administration said they’re not going to list the darn thing anyway, but promises have been at a very high level in the Republican caucus, and I don’t know how we get around that because that would be veto bait,” Smith said.