How the Oil and Gas Industry and Conservative Sportsmen’s Groups are Undermining Efforts to Protect the Greater Sage-Grouse

May 1, 2014

By Center for Western Priorities

There’s mounting evidence that the oil and gas industry is using its influence as a funder of certain sportsmen’s groups to undermine needed efforts to protect the greater sage-grouse and the sagebrush landscape it calls home. In a new report, the Center for American Progress (CAP) shows that the energy industry is buying influence from conservative sportsmen’s organizations to further the interests of oil and gas companies.

The report highlights oil companies financing organizations, like Safari Club International (SCI), to advocate against conservation of the greater sage-grouse and its habitat. While SCI’s mission is to protect the rights of hunters and support wildlife conservation worldwide, its effort against the sage-grouse contradicts the interests of hunters and the long-term health of the bird, as well as the West’s iconic big game species—namely elk, mule deer and pronghorn—reliant upon sage-grouse habitat.

According to the CAP report, the oil industry has given significant donations to SCI—the organizations PAC receives money from representatives of the Western Energy Alliance, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, Conoco Phillips, Chesapeake Energy and dozens of other oil and gas interests.

Additionally, SCI has a revolving door with the oil and gas industry. For example, SCI’s director of government affairs and science-based conservation, Melissa Simpson, previously worked for Pac/West, a conservative PR and lobbying firm. At Pac/West, oil interests—including the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States (formerly IPAMS, now the Western Energy Alliance)—had Simpson on retainer. According to CAP, one of Simpson’s tasks at Pac/West was to dispute concerns about oil and gas development damaging hunting and fishing areas.

Since moving from Pac/West to Safari Club International, Simpson has solidified a partnership between SCI and the oil industry in opposing sage-grouse protections. Simpson has, for example, coauthored op-eds in collaboration with energy industry lobbyists criticizing proactive efforts by the federal government to avoid an endangered species listing. Alongside the Western Energy Alliance and the Public Lands Council (a cattle industry group), Simpson wrote:

“In BLM’s rush to develop a comprehensive set of regulations before the Fish and Wildlife Service’s listing decision, we fear that BLM may end up piling on restrictions that actually undermine private conservation of habitat and unnecessarily restrict economic activities and job creation across the entire West.”

The Safari Club’s interest in the sage-grouse is particularly intriguing because, while it typically focuses on big game, the four-pound bird is not “especially prized by sportsmen.”

SCI’s opposition to protecting greater sage-grouse habitat is out of step with mainstream sportsmen’s organizations in the West who recognize that the disappearance of sagebrush habitat from human activity, including oil and gas development, is a significant impediment to the interests of sportsmen.

For example, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership writes:

“Consider the fact that a once abundant, widely distributed and harvested game bird is now at population levels low enough to consider for listing as threatened or endangered. This should be of major concern to sportsmen whether they hunt sage-grouse or not because it is clear that sagebrush ecosystems and the species that depend on them are vulnerable and at risk.”

For its part, the oil and gas industry denies a problem, borrowing a page from the Flat Earth Society when it comes to sage-grouse science. Rather than acknowledging established science (which, among other things, says oil and gas development harms sage-grouse), industry lobbyists have used every opportunity to tarnish scientists and land managers working to create proactive plans that offer the only path to avoid an endangered species listing.

Take, for example, Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance who stated that:

“Many of the reports relied upon to justify onerous management prescriptions for [sage grouse] have been prepared by a small group of interested and well-funded personnel that often co-author papers together and review one another’s work‚ I think in a nutshell they need to go back to the drawing board on the science they are using.”

The oil and gas industry is showing that it wants neither an endangered species listing for the greater sage-grouse, nor strong plans to avoid listing.

But what SCI and its oil industry benefactors are missing is that the only way to avoid a species listing is through well-designed and proactive planning efforts that protect the most sensitive areas, and strike a balance between protection and human activities on public lands. The alternative is listing, which would significantly restrict oil, gas and other human activities within the species’ habitat.