Letters from the West

Unprecedented collaboration leads to sage grouse decision

The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that sage grouse don’t need Endangered Species Act protecting is based on recent population growth and an “all lands” conservation strategy across the West that officials describe as the biggest land-planning effort ever undertaken for a single species.

The strategy is built on amendments to 98 amendments to federal land plans that beef up restrictions on development on 173 million acres of sage grouse habitat and proposes to withdraw 10 million acres from oil and gas and mineral development. It also depends on a national fire strategy emphasizing protecting sagebrush habitat that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pushed through this year and credited to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who had made fire the center of Idaho’s grouse plan.

The combined effort also includes 11 states, especially Wyoming, which has the most sage grouse habitat and where $424 million in federal, state and private projects are proposed for 1,129 ranches that protects 4.4 million acres. In August, a Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies survey showed sage grouse populations grew by nearly two-thirds since 2013.

“This is truly a historic effort — one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” Jewell said Tuesday. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation — ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today.”


Until recently sage grouse and the broader ecosystem that supports hundreds of other species of animals and plants have not been protected from human development. When settlers arrived 150 years ago, nearly 300 million acres of what is now 11 states was a largely contiguous sagebrush ecosystem. Today, nearly half of the complex landscape that evolved since the Pleistocene is gone, turned into farms, converted into grasslands or fragmented by roads to mines, ranches, and oil-and-gas rigs.

Intensive oil-and-gas development without environmental mitigation destroyed tens of thousands of acres of sagebrush habitat in Wyoming in the early 2000s. Fires like the Murphy Springs complex in Southern Idaho in 2007 and the Soda Fire in Owyhee County this summer destroyed millions more acres of habitat over the past two decades.

But Jewell said Tuesday the Soda Fire could have worse. Just 100 acres of the best habitat burned, Jewell said, because of firefighters, equipment and aerial retardant drops sent to the fire under the new sagebrush fire strategy.

She also praised ranchers who organized themselves into rangeland fire protection associations and helped fight the blaze.

“That wasn’t by accident,” she told the Statesman. “It could have been bigger.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter had worked closely with Jewell and the Bureau of Land Management on a plan that provided three layers of protection for the bird to prevent large-scale development in the top-ranked habitat areas; limited development in the second; and more development in the third layer. That plan survived, but included a fourth layer where — among other things — mining and pumping oil and gas would be banned.

Otter and many groups balked at that last layer, worrying the changes could limit grazing and other uses as well.

“While I appreciate Secretary Jewell’s public recognition of local and state efforts to preserve the species and its habitat, the question behind a ‘not warranted’ determination is: ‘At what cost’?” Otter said Tuesday. “For months now, the federal government’s initially transparent and collaborative process has been replaced by closed-door meetings and internal memoranda. The feds are asking us to trust them. It’s not that simple and unfortunately this is far from over.”

Other critics were harsher.

“It is disappointing that the collective efforts of the western states were rejected in favor of draconian land use restrictions and mineral withdrawals,” said Laura Skaer, executive director of the American Exploration and Mining Association.

The land use plans are “just as concerning as a listing,” said Brenda Richards, an Owyhee County rancher and president of the national Public Lands Council, which lobbies for ranchers. “Instead of recognizing the stewardship that land users have voluntarily put in place, they are pushing forward their agenda, which ignores multiple use on our lands.”


Jim Caswell, the former Bureau of Land Management director to President George W. Bush and the former director of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, counseled ranchers and Idaho industries to view the decision as a win-win. A listing would have added millions of dollars for red tape with little conservation on the ground.

“We know the rules,” Caswell said. “They’re pretty laid out and everybody should be able to work with that.”

The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project and other conservation groups sued in 2010 to get better protection for the bird when U.S. Fish and Wildlife determined the grouse were deserving of protection, but not as much as higher-priority species. In 2011, federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered the agency to make a new determination of the bird’s status by the end of September 2015. Expect those conservation groups to challenge this decision in court.

“While the final federal sage-grouse plans advance wildlife management on millions of acres of public lands, they failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

Other environmental groups hailed the federal-state conservation effort and Jewell’s decision.

“Now comes the hard part: making sure the state and federal sage grouse conservation plans are carried out so we can save greater sage grouse, the habitat and see that the work done so far pays off,” said Michael Gibson, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.