Voluntary and collaborative measures to protect and improve greater sage grouse habitat on public and private land across the West paid off as U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the bird will not be added to the endangered species list.
In a video announcement released Tuesday morning, followed by a ceremony in Colorado, Jewell said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements the Endangered Species Act, decided the listing is not warranted.
Jewell called the decision a result of “epic collaboration” and “a glimpse into the future of the West.”
“The truth is, we’ve never done anything like this before,” Jewell said at a ceremony outside Denver. “This is the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the United States of America, perhaps the world.” she said.
Four Western governors and officials from USFWS, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey attended. The decision affects about 167 million acres in the West.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ash said his agency’s representatives on the project unanimously agreed sage grouse should not be listed. He called it the “most science-rich decision ever made.”
“I never thought I would be so happy and so proud to hear the words, ‘Not warranted,’” Ash said during the Colorado ceremony.
Although disagreements and lawsuits over federal agency land-use plans persist, the decision is a relief to most ranchers, farmers, loggers, miners and energy developers in the 11 Western states where the bird lives. Many producers feared an endangered species listing would shut down or complicate their ability to make a living.
But with Oregon ranchers providing a key early model, producers, private landowners and public agencies adopted agreements most believe will protect sage grouse habitat while still allowing work on the land.
More than 100 Oregon ranchers signed voluntary conservation agreements with USFWS in which they took steps to improve habitat in exchange for 30 years protection from additional regulation even if the bird had been listed. Private landowners in other states followed suit, and public agencies such as the BLM revised their management plans.
Jewell had expressed optimism for several months that such work would make a difference.
On Tuesday, she said the decision means “a brighter future for one amazing, scrappy bird that calls the West home.”
She said pressure on wildlife from climate change and population growth aren’t going away. But she said the sage grouse decision points the way to solving such problems.
“I’m confident we have shown that epic collaboration, across a landscape, guided by sound science, is truly the future of American conservation,” Jewell said in the video announcement.
Reaction outside the ceremony was mixed.
A coalition of sportsmen’s groups praised the decision, saying thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator of sagebrush ecosystem health and of the many other animal and plant species linked to it.
“Now, we must remain invested in sustaining the health of this bird, and the landscapes that support it,” Mule Deer Foundation President Miles Moretti said in a prepared statement.
The Western Energy Alliance, however, said USFWS made the right listing decision but took the wrong path to get there. The group said BLM and Forest Service land-use plans continue “top-down, centralized management” and exaggerate the impact of energy development on sage grouse.
The conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, meanwhile, said the decision was based on “half measures and generally weak management plans.”
“Greater sage grouse have been in precipitous decline for years and deserve better than what they’re getting from the Obama administration,” spokesperson Randi Spivak said in a prepared statement.
The conservative Public Lands Council released a statement criticizing the decision. It quoted U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, House Natural Resources Committee chair, as saying it was a “cynical ploy.”
“The new command and control federal plan will not help the bird, but it will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama administration,” Bishop said in the news release.
Southeast Oregon rancher Tom Sharp said the Fish & Wildlife Service “got it right.”
Sharp, an early backer of voluntary conservation measures in Harney County, said the decision was a three-way win: For the sage grouse, for ranchers and others in agriculture, and for conservation and environmental groups. Sharp said he was proud to see private landowners and ranchers step forward to participate.
He agreed some of the sage grouse regulations on public land will pose difficulties for ranchers and others who operate on BLM or Forest Service land. “This is where I think conservation and environmental groups should recognize they had a win in the application of those new regulatory measures,” he said.
Private landowners now have an obligation to follow through on conservation measures, Sharp said. Watchdog groups will be quick to challenge if they don’t, he said.
Sharp said assuring ranchers’ privacy was key to gaining their acceptance of conservation agreements. They worried the agreements with a government agency, USFWS, would make their land and herd records open for inspection by environmentalists or others.
The 2014 Legislature took care of that by passing HB 4093, which created a public record exemption for written sage grouse conservation agreements between ranchers and local soil and water conservation districts. Districts in eight counties act as intermediaries between ranchers and the wildlife service and develop site-specific management plans for sage grouse. Reports available to the service refer to ranches by number, not by name.
“It was a concern and it would have been a barrier had we not in Oregon gone forth and passed (the legislation),” Sharp said.
Sharp owns two ranches about 50 miles apart in Harney County. He manages up to 125 beef cattle on about 1,000 acres, rotating them off the land in summers and feeding them hay in winter. He’s credited with coining what became some ranchers’ slogan during the process: “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”
While legal challenges appear inevitable, they may not succeed.
Portland attorney Kate Moore, who is part of an agriculture, food and natural resources practice group for the Dunn Carney law firm, said opponents would have to show the government’s development of management plans was arbitrary or capricious or totally ignored scientific information. She said agency planners surely anticipated scrutiny of the decision and probably took care while developing the listing decision, and courts give agencies deference in such cases.
“For that reason I don’t envision major changes to the (listing) decision,” Moore said. “There could be pieces chipped away from the management plans.”