“She saw no birds, nothing alive but squirrels, gray like the earth, and some hawks far above circling around and around. In her dooryard, even where she imagined her front step might be, were tall sagebrush and scraggly bushes, full of dust and the forgotten nests of former years.”
Idaho author Vardis Fisher’s work celebrated the achievement of Mormon pioneers who carved fields of grain out of the native sagebrush and mountain mahogany that covered the Antelope Hills overlooking the South Fork of the Snake River in eastern Idaho. He captured the economic, social and ecological transformation of the huge sagebrush landscape that dominated the American West physically and spiritually.
Today, just half of the West’s sagebrush steppe remains, about 165 million acres fragmented by farms, ranches, towns, roads, power lines, rural subdivisions, mines and oil and gas wells. The loss of habitat has left greater sage grouse populations, one of the dozens of animals that depend on the sagebrush habitat, so depleted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in 2010 that listing of the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act was “warranted, but precluded.” The agency said it had animals that were at higher priority for listing.
When conservation groups sued, a judge ordered in 2010 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reconsider and decide by Sept. 30, 2015, whether to keep the “warranted” status quo or declare the bird’s status as an Endangered Species Act candidate “not warranted.” At stake is whether to invoke or prevent the powers of the act to limit energy development, livestock grazing and other activities in the bird’s habitat across 11 states.
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For five years the great-grandsons and great-daughters of the pioneers that first plowed through the sagebrush have worked on a massive conservation effort aimed at keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list.
“We’ve got the federal government and 11 states working on an ecosystem that’s been abused or ignored for 100 years,” said Paul Rutledge of the National Audubon Society.
Once, as many as 16 million sage grouse made their home in the same lands as the roaming herds of buffalo, elk, mule deer and antelope. Today scientists fear the number has dropped to below 200,000. A study just released by University of Idaho scientist Edward Garton shows that the number of breeding males counted at grouse-mating sites fell by 56 percent from 2007 to 2013, from 109,990 to 48,641.
That prompted retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game sage grouse biologist Jack Connelly and 10 other scientists to write a stern letter to federal officials earlier this year about the sage grouse plans now being developed.
“We are issuing a warning that they need to pay attention to the science and make sure their plans are biologically sound,” Connelly said. “There’s an awful lot of wishful thinking out there.”
Still, Connelly and others have worked with states, ranchers and others to make the plans strong enough to turn around the bird’s slide. These conservation measures include preventing energy development in the best grouse habitat, stopping fire, reversing the invasion of cheatgrass and junipers into sagebrush and halting the plowing of more sagebrush for farming and subdivisions. They also include new standards for livestock grazing.
“There’s nothing that even resembles the size and scale of the sage grouse conservation effort,” said Tim Griffiths, national coordinator of the Sage Grouse Initiative for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
CONGRESS STEPS IN
Fearful of the economic consequences that a listing could unleash, Congress weighed in last year, preventing federal wildlife officials from spending any money in this year’s budget to list the sage grouse as threatened or endangered. New proposals in Congress would extend that congressional ban for up to to 10 years.
“Congress should let the process work,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman Tuesday.
So federal officials can’t list. But because the Fish and Wildlife Service must act before Oct. 1 to meet the deadline set by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Boise, it has limited options:
• It could keep the current “warranted” status.
• It could downgrade the bird’s protection across the range by deciding listing is not warranted.
• It could keep the current “warranted” status on a portion of the range, while saying listing is “not warranted” on other parts.
The goal of federal and state leaders is to develop an approach that will persuade listing officials that plans in place will protect the bird and a listing is not needed. To do that, they need enough conservation measures in place or reasonably certain to be in place to support a scientific judgment not to list.
To meet the “not warranted” goal, federal and state leaders have developed a largely three-pronged conservation approach: upgrading federal management plans to include stronger conservation measures on public lands; upgrading state plans to conserve sage grouse on private and state lands; and developing the fire plan unveiled Tuesday by Jewell to address the greatest threat to the bird in the Great Basin of Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon
The Bureau of Land Management is expected to complete its updated management plan for both its lands and national forest sagebrush habitat in Idaho and Montana by the end of this month. It already has shared its draft final plan with Idaho, which is a partner in the planning process and whose plan BLM has recommended has a “co-preferred alternative.”
Western governors, including Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, were frustrated in February when BLM officials announced that their plan would add another layer of protection at the request of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLM identified strongholds, or “focal areas,” where the “best of the best” habitat is to be withdrawn from possible mineral development and other activities must be reviewed.
This was seen by leaders across the West as adding more restrictions after they had agreed on the set of conservation measures, such as how to ensure that grouse ground cover is protected from overgrazing.
“I call it dirty pool,” said Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke.
But Otter said in a Boise press conference with Jewell Tuesday that the BLM plan is good for ranchers and should move forward.
“The quicker we can arrive at conclusions the quicker we can get results,” Otter said. “We’re close but we’re not quite there.”
Dustin Miller, director of Otter’s Office of Species Conservation, said the BLM stuck with language on grazing management that recognizes that sagebrush habitat has different levels of potential to grow grass back after annual grazing and that grouse use areas differently. In other words: Managers won’t use a one-size-fits-all standard for how much grass needs to be left after cattle have grazed, Miller said.
“Interior and BLM has seemed to try to work with us,” Miller said.
Despite these assurances, Idaho Cattle Association executive director Wyatt Prescott isn’t completely persuaded. He and other industry groups across the West are supporting legislation from Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, which would allow states to decide whether a new public land management plan goes into effect on their land.
If Bishop’s bill passes and the BLM plan satisfies ranchers and other industry groups, then the state could “opt in” and allow the plan to be finalized. Critics say it give states power over federal land decisions that would be unprecedented.
Audubon’s Rutledge said such political interference in the management-plan process would undercut the federal government’s case before Winmill or another judge, if federal officials make a decision that listing is “not warranted.” Even worse, Rutledge said, it would erode the momentum of the collaborative conservation efforts now in the works as federal, state and private partners wait for another five years to make the hard choices.
“By that time, we will have hammered the nail in the coffin of sage grouse and opened to door for listing of a dozen other species in that ecosystem,” Rutledge said.
Last week attorneys for Advocates for the West in Boise and other environmental groups involved in the sage grouse lawsuits met in Denver to discuss strategy as Congress considers actions and federal agencies complete their decisions. If the groups determine the plans don’t meet scientific thresholds or that Congress won’t fund updates in conservation and grazing plans, the groups may ask Winmill to order that more be done to protect sage grouse.
But if the states beef up their own plans and the federal agencies complete their work by September, Rutledge hopes for a success story.
Just as Fisher’s “Toilers of the Hills” pioneers found ways to carve farms and livelihoods from the desert, Rutledge hopes the new effort restores the land’s resilience, helps fight drought and increases feed for cattle while stopping the slide of the sage grouse.
“If we restore the carrying capacity of this sagebrush landscape for the grouse, it will support benefits for everyone,” Rutledge said.