From Panthers to Sage Grouse, Oil and Gun Interests Have America’s Wildlife in Their Sights

Lawmakers and federal agencies are rolling back protections for imperiled species and hoping we won’t notice―or won’t care.

While fewer than 200 Florida panthers likely remain, oil and gas companies are moving forward with a plan to develop prime habitat in Big Cypress National Preserve

Connie Bransilver/USFWS

Wildlife can’t vote. Animals can’t take to the streets in colorful protest, amass huge followings on Twitter, or crowdsource and launch viral media campaigns to get their please-don’t-kill-us message out. So when lawmakers set policies or roll back protections that end up destroying habitat and pushing species toward extinction, wildlife has no recourse—except us. What we choose to prioritize or to ignore is a measure of our compassion for species other than our own, not to mention our understanding of the importance of biodiversity and intact ecosystems.

Right now, all across the country—literally, from Florida to Alaska—wildlife is facing threats on a variety of fronts, from innocuous-sounding agency “reviews” of existing protections to pending bills that, if turned into actual laws, would have the potential to decimate populations of already-threatened animals. All of these things are taking place, of course, in the context of a new administrative culture that seeks to maximize the rights of land developers and the oil and gas industries at the expense of wildlife, responsible land stewardship, and ecosystem health.

Here are just a few examples.

The Florida Panther

Two weeks ago, a three-year-old Florida panther died after being struck by a vehicle: the 23rd panther fatality in the state this year and the 18th caused by an automobile collision. Whenever a critically endangered Florida panther dies these days, it’s a newsworthy event, and the story made the local papers and the Associated Press. Because it’s estimated that fewer than 200 of these cats are left in existence, every death is a new reason for worry.

No more than three dozen panthers prowled the wild 30 years ago. While praiseworthy, the cat’s “comeback” is a far cry from a full recovery, despite what those arguing to downgrade it from “endangered” to “threatened” might say. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently reviewing the panther’s status, although—according to FWS’s own recovery plan—downlisting shouldn’t even be considered until at least two distinct populations of at least 240 panthers have been maintained for at least 12 years.

Florida panthers need more protections, not fewer. So it’s infuriating to learn that oil and gas companies are moving forward with plans to develop prime panther habitat in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The family that owns the mineral rights to what lies beneath the preserve has leased them to the Texas-based Burnett Oil Co., which is currently embarking on a massive 234,000-acre exploration project, with an eye, ultimately, toward drilling. Their surveying methods include a technique known as “vibroseis,” which involves trucks bearing seismic vibrating equipment (and typically weighing more than 30 tons) rolling off-road into these sensitive wetlands and destroying vegetation.

The Sage Grouse

In the West, the fate of the greater sage grouse has unexpectedly reentered the political debate, only two years after the finalization of a multistate protection plan that won praise from scientists, landowners, and other stakeholders, and that by almost all accounts was working just fine. A few decades ago, millions of these ground-dwelling birds could still be seen performing their colorful mating dance throughout the “Sagebrush Sea” that stretches west from the Dakotas. But today, thanks to fossil fuel development, poor land management, and climate change, their numbers have dwindled to 200,000 or fewer.

Jeannie Stafford/USFS

The 2015 agreement drafted by President Obama’s Department of the Interior kept the greater sage grouse off the Endangered Species List in exchange for promises from states and landowners to protect and improve its habitat. The decision was considered a conservation success by all sides at the time. Even so, in June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his intent to “review” that agreement, which could very well lead to the weakening of protections or possibly even a complete reversal. Another announcement could come any day. And who would benefit? The ranching and energy industries.

Wolves and Bears

A piece of legislation called the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (or SHARE Act) is currently working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives. But this GOP-sponsored bill has far less to do with sportsmanship than it does with its “extraordinary giveaways to the gun lobby,” in one former park ranger’s words. If made into law, the SHARE Act would undermine a court ruling protecting endangered gray wolves in midwestern states, as well as block a rule banning bear-baiting, aerial gunning, shooting with silencers, and other extreme forms of hunting that are currently illegal on federal lands in Alaska.

MacNeil Lyons, National Park Service

The gun lobby behind this bill is hoping to paint hunters and commercial trappers as a group whose rights have been unfairly abridged by federal bureaucrats. To that end, they’ve added language that would give trophy hunters and trappers “priority access” to more than 100 million acres of federally protected wilderness—effectively giving them special rights to public lands.

*   *   *

Most Americans, whatever their personal backgrounds or political beliefs, claim to care about wildlife preservation and animal welfare. Land developers, the oil and gas industries, gun lobbyists, and politicians all know this—and that’s why they don’t like advertising their actions that sacrifice endangered species at the altar of corporate profits. Panthers, sage-grouse, wolves, brown bears, and polar bears are all skilled in various forms of self-protection and preservation, and would undoubtedly fight back if they could. But they can’t take their fight to Washington. They need us for that.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

On a national preserve at the edge of the Everglades, oil exploration is threatening fragile habitat and endangered species, from woodpeckers to panthers.

Victory

Why our success in saving the greater sage grouse is key to preserving millions of acres of habitat and hundreds of other species across the American West.

onEarth Story

As the interior secretary ponders the fates of 27 national monuments, he seems to be hearing some voices more acutely than others.

Explainer

Protecting these nine species will help save the region's iconic sagebrush prairies, grasslands, and mountains.

onEarth Story

What happens when preserving a species makes it unpopular?

onEarth Story

Nonlethal methods to protect livestock from predators are gaining momentum as pressure mounts to ban poison-spray traps.

Join Us