The U.S. Interior Department says the greater sage grouse does not need federal protections across its 11-state western range. The long-awaited decision affects millions of acres across the Western states.
“Today I’m proud to mark a milestone for conservation in America, because of an unprecedented effort by dozens of partners in 11 western states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the greater sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service.
She announced the decision through an online video ahead of an appearance at a wildlife refuge in Colorado.
The announcement signals that the Obama administration believes it has struck a balance to save the widespread, ground-dwelling birds from extinction without crippling the West's economy.
Federal protections could have brought more sweeping restrictions on oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activities from California to the Dakotas.
Instead, the Bureau of Land Management will be responsible for implementing land use plans designed to conserve the species. The plans focus on protecting areas that the agency has designated as critical habitat. Agencies will focus on protecting remaining pristine habitat, improving habitat conditions in degraded areas, and preventing catastrophic wildfires from consuming additional grouse territory.
Jewell described the importance of protection of other sagebrush country species through habitat conservation -- from elk to mule deer to golden eagles. She also spoke of the importance of healthy sagebrush landscape to the economy of the West: from ranching to recreation to energy production.
"But this vast landscape is suffering a death by a thousand cuts. Longer, hotter fire seasons have eliminated millions of acres. Invasive species are pushing out native species and development is fragmenting the land," Jewell said. "By many measures, the sage grouse serve as the pulse of this imperiled ecosystem."
Some environmental groups expressed disappointment with the decision. In a press release, the WildEarth Guardians said the government's existing grouse conservation plans are flawed.
“The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” said Erik Molvar wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The government’s proposed plans fall far short of ensuring this iconic, imperiled bird is protected from the serious threats posed by fossil fuel extraction, grazing and other types of development.
Tuesday's decision follows a costly conservation effort, and could help defuse a potential political liability for Democrats heading into the 2016 election.
Republicans have seized on the issue as supposed evidence of wildlife protection laws run amok.
In the end, Jewell said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that conservation efforts by government agencies, ranchers, environmental groups and others were sufficient to protect the sagebrush habitat of the grouse without requiring federal intervention under the Endangered Species Act.
Petition To List In 2002
Environmental groups first petitioned to list the grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2002, and in 201o the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that it was time to consider protecting the species. The potential listing caused alarm among ranchers, farmers and developers across the West. Each Western state developed its own sage grouse restoration plan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Sage Grouse Initiative to fund voluntary conservation projects in all affected states.
Fearing that the sage grouse would be the western desert’s version of the spotted owl, ranchers and farmers made efforts to prevent a listing by signing conservation agreements. Ranchers, landowners and agencies began working together to preserve and restore historic grouse habitat.
Why Sage Grouse Are In Decline
The sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird known for its unusual mating ritual. Historically, millions of the birds roamed 186 million acres of sagebrush country. But human encroachments on habitat caused grouse numbers to drop.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that about 200,000 and 500,000 grouse remain across the entire habitat span. Ranching, oil and gas drilling, fires, and juniper encroachment are among the causes of the species’ decline. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates some 26,000 sage grouse remain in the state.
The bird is known for it’s unique mating dance. Each spring, they travel to special mating grounds called “leks.” Male birds strut near females, making popping sounds as they force air through voluminous sacs in their chests. They return to the same leks year after year for breeding. More than 350 species depend on sage grouse habitat. The grouse is known as an umbrella species. These birds are what biologists refer to as "umbrella species." It needs broad expanses of intact sagebrush habitat to survive.
Next Steps For Sage Grouse
The environmental groups who sued to force Tuesday's decision are certain to challenge it. For now, the listing decision stands. In June, Secretary Jewell said that she expected a lawsuit, should the government decide not to list the grouse. But she said she believed the collaborative conservation efforts would stand up to legal scrutiny.
"With climate change and an expanding population, the stresses on our land, water and wildlife aren't going away," Jewell said. "But I am optimistic that we have shown that epic collaboration across a landscape, guided by sound science is truly the future of American conservation."