Amid all the complications and drama surrounding sage grouse habitat, there are several points on which Western governors, federal agencies, congressional/state legislative delegations and many a stakeholder can begin and continue the conversation.
They all know that more than 50 percent of the bird’s habitat has disappeared. They need to fix it by finding consensus and a long-term solution. They need to build where there is already some level of agreement.
1. Nobody wants to see the bird’s status changed from being “warranted” for listing to actually being listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The future of ranching and other ventures in Idaho could themselves become threatened or endangered because they would face some expensive and demanding consultation rules.
2. Creating conservation plans in 11 Western states (Idaho has a good one) where the bird lives could achieve getting its status changed to “not warranted” for listing, and would be a good way forward on so many levels.
3. The highly flammable cheat grass that fills in when sagebrush — ideal sage grouse habitat — disappears (due to grazing, development or for whatever reason) is a negative outcome that only compounds the wildfire threat in Idaho and the West.
4. Everybody wants some certainty so activities and commerce can coexist with the sage grouse and its habitat.
We are glad to see the kind of collaborative efforts that Gov. Butch Otter and some of his Western colleagues have been working on in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has been a key facilitator, working with Otter and other governors to create sage grouse conservation plans. They are engaged in a 60-day overview with BLM and other agencies that should give some guidance that will be helpful for developers and ranchers considering investments and future land use.
But we are concerned that these efforts face a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director will have to report back with a sage grouse update. If it is unchanged, the cloud of uncertainty continues. If the work of all these collaborators is scientifically convincing enough, sage grouse could get that preferred “not warranted” status. Though conservation efforts would have to be maintained, it could ease the uncertainty for landowners and ranchers, in particular, who ask Jewell wherever she travels: “What I really want to know is can I pass this ranch on to my kids?”
Questions like those will not be answered anytime soon if members of Congress attempt to blow up these collaborative efforts between the feds and the governors. There is legislation out there that could delay a listing decision for seven to 10 years by denying funding to carry it out, or by claiming military training in the West is compromised by overbearing sage grouse habitat restrictions.
But these arguments and actions would be short-sighted, because environmentalists would bring on a barrage of lawsuits that would set the process back even more. That would produce a new era of gridlock and even more uncertainty. That serves neither the bird nor the stakeholders.
It’s best if Congress stays on the sidelines until the feds and the governors are given a chance to hammer out something on their own.
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