Just two years ago, people across the West were waiting to hear whether the greater sage-grouse would have to be added to the endangered species list. A lot was at stake: the fate of one of our most iconic species; the more than 350 other species that rely on this same landscape; and the hunting, recreation and grazing that depend on sagebrush country.
The good news is that an unprecedented collaboration among local, state and federal officials, landowners, sportsmen, recreationists, energy industries and other stakeholders resulted in conservation plans across the West devoted to providing a sustainable future for the bird and sagebrush country. The bad news is that all that work could now be tossed out the window. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered a “review” of the conservation plans by his specially appointed federal team. As part of that review, the secretary has suggested shifting the focus of these plans from restoring and conserving sage grouse habitat to setting population objectives that could be achieved by such “creative approaches” as captive breeding.
Shifting the focus from preserving the habitat, which also sustains mule deer, pronghorn and elk, isn’t a good idea. There is little scientific support for this approach. Neither is tossing out the years of work by grass-roots networks that produced the conservation plans. Even as Zinke complains of top-down schemes imposed on the West, he and his hand-picked team would be serving special interests in Washington, D.C., by gutting plans that were driven by local stakeholders and by science.
Why not acknowledge the good work of so many across the West that went into the development of the sage grouse conservation plans by giving the plans a real chance to succeed?
Western governors, both Republican and Democrat, told Zinke in a recent letter that wholesale changes to the plans aren’t needed. Gov. Butch Otter and five other governors wrote to Zinke right before the Western Governors’ Association meeting in June to ask the Interior Department team reviewing the conservation plans to coordinate with the governors and keep them in the loop. Certainly, the secretary should listen to specific concerns these governors and others might have — they are the leaders of the local efforts he has professed to champion. Yet their requests go unanswered. Undoubtedly the plans are not perfect — nothing is. But we can learn how to make them better as we progress.
To that I would add that it’s also crucial to make sure the broader public is heard during this review. Westerners know firsthand that our economy and lifestyle are intertwined with the health and viability of the land. The public sagebrush lands sustain hunting and other recreation that contribute $1 billion to the regional economy. The lands are vital to ranchers. And keeping the sage grouse from ESA listing ensures energy development and security.
Now’s not the time to abandon what took years to work out. We all have a stake in seeing that sage grouse and sagebrush lands survive and thrive.
Brian Brooks lives in Boise and fishes and hunts all over Idaho. He is the executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.