The Road to Perdition

A Venn diagram where coal, the Endangered Species Act, Republicans, and Wyoming’s Board of Education collide.

A Venn diagram where coal, the Endangered Species Act, Republicans, and Wyoming’s Board of Education collide.


Sandy Robson guest writes this article. She is a professional worker who lives in Whatcom County and is concerned about our environment.

This is a follow-up to my May 22, 2014 article posted on NW Citizen about efforts by Powder River Basin states Montana and Wyoming to pressure Washington into permitting and building the proposed coal terminals; Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point, and Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview (MBTL). GPT was proposed by SSA Marine/Pacific International Terminals (PIT), and MBTL was proposed by Ambre Energy and Arch Coal. The PRB coal industry and PIT desperately need the coal export terminals proposed in Washington state to be permitted and built—stat.

Earlier this year, the Wyoming State Legislature appropriated $500,000 for potential legal action to gain access to deep-water ports in Washington state. Further, the legislature also specified additional funds to protect land-use interests in the state—interests of industries such as mining, energy production, and ranching. In one effort to protect these land-use interests, the Legislature is trying to avoid a potential determination by the federal government to list the greater sage-grouse as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sage-Grouse a Canary in the Coal Mine

The greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America and is dependent on sagebrush-dominated habitats such as big sagebrush in Wyoming. The bird’s historic range covers about 160 million acres across the Mountain West Region including land in 11 states.

In a May 11, 2014 Washington Post article, Randi Spivak, the public-lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity explained the bird’s vital significance: “The sage grouse is an umbrella species, so it’s sort of the canary in the coal mine.” An umbrella species serves to protect many co-occurring species and is selected as such for making conservation related decisions.

As a canary in a coal mine, if the greater sage-grouse were listed as an Endangered Species it could put quite a crimp in Wyoming’s coal mining industry by impacting public land use. Thus, the Wyoming State Legislature designated $1.2 million to the governor’s office budget to be used for, “sage grouse research and advancing the state’s position, as determined by the governor, with respect to potential endangered species listing of the sage grouse by United States Fish and Wildlife Service.”

To List, or Not to List, That is the Question

A website called the “Wyoming Density and Disturbance Calculation Tool (WDDCT),” provides a process to give enough protection of Core Areas (a safe haven) for greater sage-grouse so that its listing under the ESA might become unnecessary. According to the WDDCT website:
“The greater sage-grouse has been the subject of several petitions to list the species as threatened or endangered pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. Based on their 12 month finding the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that listing the greater sage-grouse as a threatened or endangered species is warranted over all of its range, including the populations in Wyoming. However, the USFWS has determined that listing the greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered is currently precluded by higher priority listing actions, resulting in the greater sage-grouse currently being termed a ‘candidate’ species under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS is required to review the status of all candidate species every year and resolution of final listing determination for greater sage-grouse is expected in 2015.”

That final 2015 determination deadline stems from USFWS’s 2005 decision not to list the grouse as threatened, which triggered a lawsuit from environmental groups. Two years later, a federal judge overturned USFWS’s 2005 decision. In 2010, the agency determined the grouse warranted protection and an agreement was reached between USFWS and the environmental groups stipulating that USFWS had until September 2015 to put forth regulations controlling the bird’s habitat, or to change its decision.

In the Wyoming Legislature’s efforts to avoid the “endangered” listing of the greater sage-grouse, their use of the phrase, “advancing the state’s position,” when referencing the utilization of the $1.2 million, raises the question as to whether those efforts could also include joining other efforts to weaken or gut the ESA. There is already an effort to bypass the ESA by legislators in Wyoming. On May 22, 2014, U.S. Senators Mike Enzi, John Barrasso, and U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis (all Republicans from Wyoming), joined Congressmen Cory Gardner (R-CO), Scott Tipton (R-CO), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Rob Bishop (R-UT) in introducing the “Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act,” in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

This legislation would prevent the sage grouse from being listed under the ESA for 10 years and would allow states to develop their own conservation management plans for sage-grouse. Republican sponsors of the bill said they were concerned that the federal listing of the sage grouse could impede economic development. Barasso said in a May 2014 press release: “By forcing Washington [D.C.] out of the way, this bill puts Americans who live in these communities and know what works best in charge of managing the land and wildlife.” Possible translation: “Washington, D.C., mind your own beeswax. This bill puts Americans who run corporations in the mining, oil and gas, and ranching industries and know what works best for their businesses, in charge of managing the land and wildlife.” God help us all.

Endangered Species Act Under Attack by Congressmen

The Endangered Species Act itself is under assault by legislators from Kentucky and Nevada. In November of last year, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul introduced bill S. 1731, the “Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act.” Nevada Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada, are co-sponsors. According to a March 2014 editorial published in Scientific American, S. 1731 would require state and congressional approval to add new species to the protected list (USFWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service do this currently), based on the best available scientific data. This bill would allow governors to decide if and how their states follow ESA regulations, and would also automatically delist species after five years.

Scientific American’s editorial reminded readers that, “The ESA has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the 2,000 listed species. It is widely considered the strongest piece of conservation legislation ever implemented in the U.S. and perhaps the world. Yet for years the ESA has endured attacks from politicians who charge that it is economically damaging and ineffectual.”

The editorial went on to say, “Senator Paul and others advocating for reform say that they want to improve the law to better serve imperiled species and local people. But their arguments are flawed. The reason why few species have recovered to the point where they can be delisted is not because the ESA is ineffective but because species take decades to rebound. In fact, 90 percent of the listed species are on track to meet their recovery goals.”

An important take-away quote from the editorial suggests, “. . .conservation efforts must be updated to reflect what scientists now know about climate change and the threats it poses to wildlife. As temperatures rise, many more species will fall on hard times. Policy makers should thus increase ESA funding to allow more rigorous monitoring of wildlife and to protect more species.”

Is Political Science Trumping Science Education?

The subject of climate change or climate science relates to another way Wyoming is fighting hard for the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels like coal. According to a March 25, 2014 column published online on WyoFile, an independent, nonprofit news service, Wyoming became the first state in the nation to block adoption of the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). WyoFile Editor-in-Chief Dustin Bleizeffer wrote that this was, “based on the fear that the climate science within NGSS may be a threat to Wyoming’s culture and economy.”

The article observes, “Lawmakers and Gov. Mead kicked NGSS out from under the board [State Board of Education]. But they didn’t change the board’s charge to provide the best educational management guidance for the benefit of Wyoming students. This places the board in an impossible position: Damned by education peers, parents, and students’ future employers if they do attempt to debunk or ignore climate science; damned by Wyoming elected officials if they don’t.”

Bleizeffer also wrote, “Wyoming’s students and educators should not be forced to accept and promote the same political tactics that, unfortunately, work so well in shoring up votes for political offices in this state. Climate denial might help, or at least not diminish, a Wyoming politician’s voter base. But it certainly degrades the quality and reputations of our educational institutions.” This seems to be a case of political science attempting to override science education.

Wyoming’s blocking of NGSS, the grouse war being waged, and the continued assault on the ESA, should be blazing red flags to those of us in Washington where two huge coal export terminals are proposed. Coal industry money has the potential to act like a powerful drug. Lawmakers “addicted” to that coal money may show their inability to put the best interests of Wyoming’s young students who represent the future, endangered species vital to our existence, and Washington state residents, ahead of lawmakers’ own insatiable appetite for their drug of choice—-coal money.

Guess all’s fair in love and war, and in this case, the war is the war for coal. . .and for Pacific Northwest coal export terminals.

About Sandy Robson

Citizen Journalist • Birch Bay • Member since Feb 27, 2014

Sandy Robson is a professional worker who lives in Whatcom County and is concerned about our environment. She has been a leader in opposing by writing articles about the proposed [...]

Comments by Readers

Barbara Perry

Jun 02, 2014

Hello Sandra Robson,

I sent the NW Citizen site of your article to a friend from Wisconsin, knowing how this is an international as well as local topic. I had first heard about the topic on a Facebook site of a friend who lives in Montana and is a professor who uses Facebook to give information to students.  I haven’t sent the Montana friend the article yet, but the Wisconsin friend thought it wonderful and hopefully is sending it on.  He was most impressed with your writing and detail.

So Great Work!!


Sandy Robson

Jun 02, 2014

Barbara Perry: Thank you for your post saying your friend enjoyed my article here on NWCitizen, and for your compliment. Since in your post you mentioned you were going to send another friend of yours in Montana this article above, you may want to also direct that person to a related May 22nd article I wrote that is posted on NWCitizen. There is a link to it in the first sentence of this article.

I think your Montana friend may be interested in that article too, because it is mostly about the efforts that Montana is going to relating to the proposed Pac NW coal export coal terminals.

Thanks again, for checking out the article here on NWCitizen. I was happy that John Servais/NWCitizen felt it worthy to post.

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