This morning, my ten-thirty AM consultation was with an economist from the USDA. We spent about an hour and ten minutes discussing the ramifications of the Renewable Fuel Standard and its impacts on the corn market. Manufacturing fuel ethanol from corn was a stupid idea when it got started during the Carter administration, of course, and it’s a still a stupid idea today, but stupidity never kept the US government from doing anything the farm lobby and agribusiness happen to want. There was still plenty of analysis remaining, but my guest cut things off twenty minutes early.
“Thanks, Tom,” she said with a smile as a gentleman whom I had never met opened the door to the reception area and stepped into my office. “This is my husband, Gerald. He’s with the Fish and Wildlife Service. If you could provide him with your services during my remaining consultation time, it would be highly appreciated.”
“Sure,” I replied, “it’s your consultation, after all.”
“Okay,” she stated in her most businesslike tone as she stood and extended her hand, “I’ll be on my way, then.”
“Very good,” I assured her as I shook her hand and she departed.
“Pleasure to meet you, Tom,” Gerald greeted me as he he extended his hand, shook mine and took the chair his wife had just vacated.
“Pleasure to meet you, too, Gerald,” I told him as I sat back down behind my desk. “How can I help you?”
“Well,” he began, “over at the Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m known as the world’s foremost authority on the policy implications of sage grouse population dynamics.”
“How interesting,” I dryly responded. “Between that and your lovely wife’s work at the Department of Agriculture, the dinner conversations at your house must be absolutely scintillating.”
“We have our moments,” he affirmed. “Especially lately, what with the RFS and things heating up on sage grouse issues more or less at the same time!”
“No doubt,” I opined. “What sage grouse issues, may I ask, are heating up?”
“It all started,” he explained, “when Fish and Wildlife decided not to list the the greater North American sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, as an endangered species.”
“Not to list it as endangered?” I sought to clarify. “Is that what I think I just heard you say?”
“Correct,” he confirmed. “As a matter of fact, we decided not to even list it as threatened.”
“And that,” I inquired, “has set off some sort of… firestorm?”
“Oh, well,” he shrugged, “probably not that, exactly. I mean, if the US Fish and Wildlife Service had just decided not to declare the sage grouse to be an endangered or threatened species, I wouldn’t expect that, by itself, to get folks out west all that upset, really. I suppose it was what we did next that got them all riled up.”
“Which was… what?” I prodded.
“Well, we couldn’t just… you know, leave it at that,” he elaborated. “Because if we did, God knows what those folks out West would make of it. They’d probably start treating sage grouse the way New Yorkers treat pigeons, after all, it’s only human nature. But it’s not like sage grouse are some kind of varmint that’s overrunning the landscape or anything, far from it, actually. They’re indigenous North American fauna and deserve some kind of protection.”
“Sounds like you’re pretty fond of the little critters,” I speculated.
“Ah hell,” he confessed, “to tell you the truth, if I wasn’t the world’s expert on the policy implications of their population dynamics, I wouldn’t give a rat’s [expletive] about those stupid [expletive] birds. I have a doctorate in biology from Cornell, for Christ’s sake! When I started at Fish and Wildlife, I thought I’d end up working the big, sexy stuff, like wolves, cougars, sea lions, maybe even killer whales! And what did I end up with? A bunch of [expletive] prairie chickens, that’s what! But now that I’m stuck with them, and their population is down by ninety [expletive] percent, damn it all, so I have to make [expletive] sure they don’t become extinct, because if they do, then not only is everybody going to figure it’s my [expletive] fault, I will also become the world’s foremost expert on a subject that nobody will give a flying [expletive] about! And if that happens, I can kiss my Civil Service career [expletive] goodbye!”
“So what did you do?” I pressed.
“I argued,” he revealed, “that because the bird wasn’t going to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service should promulgate federal land use restrictions to ensure continued viability of sage grouse habitats instead.”
“And that’s what they did?” I asked.
“Yep,” he vouched, “that’s what they did, all right. And now, there are federal law suits about it all over sage grouse country. There’s a subdivision outside of Reno, Nevada that wants to build a school on protected sage grouse habitat land. There’s another one that wants to build a war veterans’ cemetery on another protected parcel nearby. There’s eight Nevada counties screaming bloody murder about the situation, suing in federal court, claiming that designating land within them as sage grouse habitats will block construction of wind farms, keep coal mines from operating, run ranchers out of business and put farmers in the poor house! They’re talking about economic impacts running into the billions – five hundred million for that [expletive] wind farm alone! ”
“Is there any substance to allegations like that?” I inquired.
“To hear their attorneys tell it, yes,” he grumbled. “They’re going into court and telling the judge that farmer so-and-so can’t repair the pipe that feeds the water storage tank he uses for his [expletive] irrigation system because it runs across a protected sage grouse habitat! There’s a town claiming they have had to close down their municipal landfill because the [expletive] grouse have to use it for a breeding ground. The ranchers are complaining they’ll have their grazing permits taken away to keep their [expletive] cows out of sage grouse territory! And what’s more, they’re arguing that grazing reduces the fuel for wildfires and now there are going to be more wildfires because of the sage grouse! And on top of all that [expletive], they’re claiming that the federal government put sage grouse habitats smack dab in the middle of a bunch of suburban neighborhoods!”
“Well,” I wondered, “did the federal government by any chance actually do that?”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, “they did. So technically, the people who live there can’t use their yards during mating season if a male sage grouse decides to set up a lek there. And, of course, they’ll have to keep their cats and dogs inside until the chicks hatch and get old enough to fly. But it’s not like any of that was my idea, you know. I mean, it wasn’t me who picked out the [expletive] habitat parcels, and if it had been, I sure as hell wouldn’t have designated any in [expletive] residential subdivisions!”
“Sounds like a typical federal government project,” I opined.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he sighed. “The whole thing’s become a political football. The Attorney General of Nevada wants in on the side of the cowboys, miners and such. And on the other side, there’s the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and some mining watchdog group that calls itself Earthworks, all trying to get attached to the lawsuits on the federal government’s behalf. The bottom line, Collins, is that this whole thing’s turning into a steaming pile of [expletive]! What the [expletive] can I do about it?”
“Okay,” I observed, “first of all, the most important aspect of this situation is that the greater North American sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is not an endangered species.”
“Yeah,” he allowed, “I guess that’s more or less the point of the whole thing – actually, as I said, it isn’t even listed as threatened.”
“So as far as the Endangered Species Act is concerned,” I concluded, “the sage grouse is just another animal that lives in the western United States, no different from, say, coyotes or red-winged black birds.”
“Pretty much,” he concurred. “But not exactly. Coyotes and red-winged black birds have ‘least concern’ status under the ESA, but the sage grouse has a conservation status of ‘near threatened,’ which is the next rung up on the ladder, so to speak.”
“So what’s the policy on hunting sage grouse?” I asked.
“Sage grouse?” he mused. “Oh, well, technically, the Fish and Wildlife Service official policy is that the Service does not believe hunting is a threat to sage-grouse on a range-wide basis.”
“So hunting them is not a threat to their continued viability?” I sought to verify.
“Not if state wildlife agencies conservatively manage sage-grouse hunting opportunities by reducing season lengths and harvest limits in response to population declines,” he assured me. “As a matter of fact, quite a bit of my latest research went into that determination, and in 2010, we concluded that hunting is not a threat to the species and, based on current harvest rates, there is no reason its continuation should have any substantial impacts on sage-grouse populations. And to date, proactive changes in the management of sage-grouse hunting have actually been shown to result in overall reduced mortality associated with hunting on a range-wide basis.”
“In that case,” I advised, “you should begin a campaign to make sage grouse the next trendy high-end restaurant item.”
“What?” he shrieked. “Look, Collins, it’s one thing if a few cowboys, skeet shooters and game aficionados bring home a couple of sage grouse for their wives to de-feather, gut and clean so they can roast those scrawny carcasses on the charcoal grill once a year, and quite another to turn the sage grouse into the next Chilean sea bass!”
“Ah, an excellent analogy!” I told him. “Because what happened when somebody decided to re-market the ugly, unknown Patagonian toothfish that no one wanted to eat as a trendy, chi-chi upscale delicacy with a new, classy-sounding name? Before you could say ‘poached with Amalfi Coast capers and locally grown organic dill in Sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, then served on a bed of red and black Peruvian quinoa and Japanese almond pilaf with a delicate sauce of hand-foraged wild Laotian mountain ginger and Bahamian key limes, garnished with Moroccan saffron strands,’ every rich liberal from New York to San Francisco was wringing their hands, worried that the poor things would become extinct from over-fishing, weren’t they?”
“Yeah,” he admitted with a thoughtful, abstracted air, “I guess they did.”
“And now,” I pointed out, “you’re lucky if you can find Chilean sea bass for less than thirty dollars a pound. Meaning that everybody, from the fisherman to the wholesaler to the shipper to the delivery service to the fish monger is making boatloads of cash. And when there’s that kind of money involved, you bet your sweet bippy there’s plenty of vested interest in seeing that the Chilean sea bass, Dissostichus eleginoides, remains a robust and vibrant species for many decades to come.”
“And you’re suggesting,” he gasped, “that turning the sage grouse into a high-end restaurant menu item will likewise guarantee its future?”
“Not only that,” I confidently asserted, “it will elevate the bird’s status to the point where people out West will be downright proud to have those birds breeding in their back yards. What’s more, when sage grouse meat starts selling for thirty or forty bucks a pound to the well-heeled dentists, bureaucrats, lawyers, accountants, executives and software engineers who shop at places like Whole Foods, there are going to be quite a few farmers and ranchers lining their own pockets with plenty of greenbacks. It’s a win-win situation all around. And look here – while we’ve been talking about this, I’ve done a Web search for sage grouse recipes, and there’s already a slew of them that go way beyond grilling a bird on the backyard barbecue. Here’s deboned sage grouse breasts marinated and served with roasted bell peppers; alder cone smoked sage grouse with fern root glaze; sage grouse and cranberry crostini; sage grouse with pear sauce; sage grouse stuffed with morels; sauteed sage grouse with peach and balsamic glaze; sage grouse with risotto and chanterelles… the list goes on forever – there are over thirty-four thousand search results returned here. My recommendation is you find some ambitious young upscale chefs and start pitching them wild caught sage grouse as free-range, organic, eco-friendly paleo-food. That’s the best way to guarantee that your work will be relevant, important, and most of all, taken seriously until you’ve finished your twenty or thirty years with the federal government and decide to retire.”
“So you’re saying,” he implored, “that the best way to preserve a species is to get wealthy people to want to eat it?”
“Well,” I noted, “that strategy worked just fine for oysters, didn’t it? And now, your time’s up, and I’m going to lunch.”