Guest Opinions

Sage grouse conservation plans: Good for the bird and Westerners

Jenna Narducci
Jenna Narducci

When it comes to public lands, wildlife, drilling and mining in the West, agreement doesn’t come easy.

This holds especially true in the case of the greater sage-grouse. The species, found only in the American West, has declined in numbers for years. Where they once numbered as high as 16 million, there are now fewer than a half-million.

A primary driver of the decline, and why this issue is so complex, is the loss and degradation of grouse habitat — sagebrush lands. What complicates sage grouse conservation is the habitat it needs to survive is also where ranchers graze their livestock, people recreate, oil and gas are drilled, and coal is mined.

This iconic Western landscape is many things to many people — and to many species. This makes the sage grouse conservation plans announced in the fall of 2015 so groundbreaking.

The conservation plans by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service were built on years of collaboration by diverse stakeholders. Representatives of jurisdictions across the West, including Idaho, worked with each other to save the bird and its habitat. The result of landscape-level planning, tailored to individual states, was the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not add sage grouse to the Endangered Species List.

A major agreement aimed at saving Western wildlife that avoided the need to invoke the Endangered Species Act seems like an across-the-board win, right? Not for those willing to upend one of our country’s largest-ever conservation efforts for political purposes.

To that end, members of Congress attached riders to the National Defense Authorization Act to block the conservation plans. Those attempts failed, but the latest salvo is legislation by Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho and GOP Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah that would block federal agencies from carrying out the sage grouse conservation plans if states decide to assume management.

The legislation is not only a backdoor public-lands-transfer scheme, it’s a surefire way to end up listing the bird. Failure would jeopardize not only the fate of sage grouse, but also future collaborative efforts, other wildlife in sagebrush country, including mule deer and pronghorn, and local economies based on ranching, recreation and energy development.

While not 100 percent satisfied with the plans, some Western governors recognize they offer the best opportunity to work with federal partners to improve sage grouse populations while forging effective collaborations. Hopefully, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter will follow suit. On the one hand, the governor has made constructive suggestions about how to handle mineral development under the plans, and on the other he is suing to overturn the plans.

Idahoans also hope Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joins the discussion with other Westerners who’ve been working on this issue. We invite him to join the sportsmen, ranchers, business owners, local elected officials, outdoor recreationists, scientists and conservationists who cooperated to create the sage grouse conservation plans. We must ensure the work is fully funded and implemented to protect our wildlife, public lands and Western way of life for generations to come.

Jenna Narducci is a graduate student at Boise State University studying how land-use change in the Treasure Valley affects the environment, and implications for people’s well-being.