By now most everyone in the West has heard about the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to not list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in September. In the ensuing debate, what has been most interesting — and inspiring — is how so many people on all sides of the issue have come together to give the decision, and the plans upon which it is based, a chance to work.
As Oregon state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I was one of the decision makers in 2010 who recommended to our director that we should list the species. At that time, I and my agency colleagues from the western states believed that much more effort was needed to conserve greater sage grouse and the sagebrush ecosystems on which they and so many others species — not to mention our entire western economy — depend. We felt that if nothing was done, or the status quo was allowed to persist, the species would continue to decline. Our leadership supported that recommendation.
What’s different now, and why do I strongly support the decision to not list the species? Our 2010 finding, with the court-ordered deadline to make a final decision by September, served as a major catalyst for unprecedented action at all levels: private, state and federal. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service produced comprehensive plans that made major changes to how their sagebrush lands will be managed. Several states, including Oregon, developed conservation plans with strong voluntary conservation incentives. And many private landowners, including Eastern Oregon ranchers, saw collaboration as the best way to preserve their local economies and culture.
Taken together, we now have a paradigm shift for how these iconic Western landscapes will be managed. We will see more responsible grazing on all lands, especially public lands. Development within sagebrush habitat is now better planned and mitigated, with mining and energy development significantly reduced in core areas. And hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and private funds are being put towards proactive greater sage grouse conservation projects.
Any way you look at it, the major threats to the species that were identified in 2010 are now greatly reduced. Are these threats fully eliminated? No — such threats can never be completely eliminated from wild ecosystems and for most other native species. Here in the Great Basin, climate change, wildfire and invasive species are the biggest challenges. But efforts to manage these challenges and fight these threats have increased by orders of magnitude compared to where we were in 2010. We are confident that if these plans are fully implemented, the greater sage grouse is not at risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future. This combination of new regulation, voluntary measures, and funding resources is completely unprecedented.
The best course forward now is to give these plans a chance to work over the next five or ten years. Let’s see how the sage grouse and the habitat respond. If people fail to follow through on their conservation commitments, the Fish and Wildlife Service can and will step back in to reconsider listing the bird.
But the best possible conservation outcome right now is to give these plans – and all the people who have come together – a chance to make it work.
Paul Henson is Oregon State Supervisor U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.