WASHINGTON — Long considered a joke to defense watchers, the odd-looking sage grouse is not longer a laughing matter, but a bona fide threat to progress of a massive multibillion-dollar defense policy bill.
The bird is at the center of a high-level showdown between House Republican leadership and the "Big Four" leaders of congressional armed services committees. That's because accommodations for the sage grouse touch energy, mining and ranching interests, and at least if some House Republicans are to be believed, such accommodations would hinder operations at some US military bases.
The House's No. 2 Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, has indicated he will not let the annual National Defense Authorization Act proceed to a vote in the House unless it contains language to bar the sage grouse from the federal endangered species list until at least 2025.
"I think it needs to stay in the bill," McCarthy told reporters on Monday, referring to the sage-grouse measure. "I think that’s been delivered very clearly to everybody."
Yet the "Big Four" — Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I.; and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash. — argue the Defense Department has said it has no need for the provision and it should be excluded from the final bill.
Asked whether the sage grouse was a worthy-enough cause to stall the defense policy bill, McCarthy said, "I don’t know. Ask McCain about that."
For McCain's part, he said he opposes the language for practical reasons. The president has threatened a veto over it.
"The veto would be sustained — and I don’t know what the point is because it has nothing to do with defense," McCain told Defense News on Tuesday. "The commanding officers of bases can train and go where they want."
The impasse assures the bill will not be resolved until the post-Nov. 8 lame duck session, McCain and other lawmakers say. It has derailed the Big Four's closed-door negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the NDAA.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told Defense News in a brief interview on Monday GOP leadership had tied his hands on the sage grouse matter, adding that lawmakers otherwise were making significant progress on a defense-bill compromise.
"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.
"So I think we’ve come to a very good place, not in total agreement on all the defense-related issues, but obviously it’s not going to happen now until the lame duck," Thornberry said. "We’re ready, whenever."
This is the second year in a row the defense-policy bill has been roped into the sage grouse debate — a high-stakes battle between industry and anti-regulation advocates on one side, and conservation groups like the Audubon Society on the other. So far this year, 61 different groups have actively lobbied the Hill on the issue this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"The NDAA gets into all kinds of things that are not the province of the national security committee; Can anyone say sage grouse?" HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at a public forum last week. "We have a vehicle that moves, so people try to latch everything onto it."
Smith characterized the sage grouse as "the biggest problem remaining" for the NDAA, without huge differences on other issues. "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.
Known for its distinctive strut, spiky tail and fluffy chest, the sage grouse is a chicken-like bird whose habitat covers 186 million acres in eleven western states. That habitat also overlaps significant oil and gas basins across the West, according to the Western Energy Alliance, which filed a lawsuit in August against the federal government over its conservation plans for the bird.
Though the Obama administration agreed a year ago not to list the sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, opponents argue the administration’s changes in land-management rules to protect the bird essentially achieve the same impinging effect. Private development interests and lawmakers aligned with them argue that state and local land-management plans, which tend to be more industry-friendly than federal plans, should take precedence.
This is a proxy battle in their fight for state control of federal land in the West," said a Democratic staffer for the Natural Resources Committee. "They don’t want to see the federal government emplace conservation measures on federal lands anywhere. That’s an open secret."
When the GOP party drafted its platform at the convention in Cleveland in late July, the sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken were included by name in an effort to protect the economic interests of western states. Now a GOP party plank, the professed fear is that the birds’ endangered status would "threaten to devastate farmers, ranchers, and oil and gas production."
"We’re talking 16 states," Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told fellow members of a GOP policy-drafting committee while making the argument. "I know drillers who are going out of business because they can’t drill, because those are in prairie chicken habitats. I know land owners who can’t sell their land because its in prairie chicken habitats. Similar things are about to happen in the mountain states because they are about to list the sage grouse."
During the House Armed Service Committee markup of the NDAA in late April, panel member and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah — a stalwart on the issue — successfully proposed the amendment that would block the federal government from declaring the sage grouse an endangered species until at least 2025.
Though McCain and Democrats see the military nexus as a red herring, Bishop and other advocates insist the conservation efforts would have a negative impact on military readiness, range operations and military spending.
"I recognize the military need, that some people want to overlook, and I also recognize the issues that are significant to those of us who live in the West," Bishop told Defense News.
For the NDAA to advance, a compromise conference report requires a majority of the roughly 25 conferees to sign off on it, and it is unclear how many lawmakers feel as strongly. At least Bishop and two other Republicans from the House Natural Resources Committee who have vocally opposed sage-grouse protections were named to the NDAA conference committee in July by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Bishop would not say whether he or other lawmakers would withhold their signatures over the issue.
"I don’t think it will ever come to that," Bishop said. "I think it will be included in the NDAA because it is a military issue that affects ranges in the West and it is the right thing to do. I think that ultimately people will come to that conclusion."
Bishop’s camp, according to a staffer, has reached out to McCain and Reed, but "all calls and outreach to try and discuss an agreement [have] not been reciprocated.
"The Senate is not even interested in a discussion, but in the interest of moving forward, I hope they would have the courtesy of returning calls," the staffer said.
House Democrats have used the impasse to publicly poke fun at Republicans. House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Jackie Speier, D-Calif., in a floor speech last week, said House Republicans were "chicken for prioritizing politics over national security policy."
"A disagreement between House and Senate Republicans got egg all over the deal" to reconcile the pending defense bill, Speier said. "That’s right, a bill that authorizes over $600 billion in spending on wartime operations, service member benefits and many other provisions critical to the defense of our country was taken down by a bird."
The Defense Department’s position on the issue has been subject to competing interpretations of letters it sent Congress in April at the request of top Democrats on the HASC and House Natural Resources Committee.
Acting Assistant Defense Secretary for Readiness Daniel Feehan said in one letter that existing law sufficiently protects DoD’s interests, "and we do not anticipate the need for additional legislation from Congress." The military services have largely said the same.
If the sage grouse were listed as an endangered species and the Air Force’s lands lose their exemption from "critical habitat" designation, the service would have to spend $500,000 annually to protect the sage grouse, up from the $200,000 it already spends. The other services also rely on this exemption.
There are eight known military installations with confirmed populations of the greater sage-grouse, according to a fact sheet from the Defense Department and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. They are Dugway Proving Ground and Tooele Army Depot in Utah; Sheridan Training Area and Camp Guernsey in Wyoming; Hawthorne Army Depot and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada; Yakima Training Center in Washington, and Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
This week, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Brindle said he does not expect the Fish & Wildlife Service to list the bird as threatened or endangered in the near future. Though if it did, DoD may need to take steps beyond those already included in its natural resources management plans, and "any such mitigations would be manageable," Brindle said.
"We seek to strike an appropriate balance between our Endangered Species Act responsibilities and our military mission obligations," Brindle said. "Historically, we have been very successful in this regard. Overall, DoD would not expect a significant impact to military training, operations, or readiness."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.