The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Decision not to list sage grouse as endangered is called life saver by some, death knell by others

A male sage grouse performs his “strut” near Rawlins, Wyo. (Jerret Raffety/The Rawlins Daily Times via AP)

The bird at the center of a historic conservation effort, whose health reflects the condition of a vast western sagebrush sea, is staying off the endangered species list but likely remaining a volatile issue for many environmentalists, business interests and politicians.

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would try to protect the greater sage grouse without listing it as endangered – a long-awaited decision that immediately brought praise, condemnation or caution from the various interests. Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell said that the chicken-like grouse does not meet the required standard because a collaboration of federal agencies, states, ranchers, industry and environmental groups has already begun to restore areas where it breeds.

Scientists estimate the bird’s population has plummeted by up to 90 percent as drilling and mining operations disturbed its habitat. But federal officials concluded that enough fertile areas remain across 11 states for the sage grouse to someday thrive again. In the 167-million-acre sagebrush where the grouse live, the males dance spectacularly to attract females during mating season.  

“This is truly a historic effort,” Jewell said in a statement, praising the Endangered Species Act as a catalyst for the combined effort to ensure that the sage grouse, as well as 350 other species supported by the sagebrush ecosystem, will endure and coexist with development. The sweeping conservation effort, which already has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, will “benefit Westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home, while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”

National Audubon Society President and Chief Executive David Yarnold called the decision “a new lease on life” for the bird. “Finding a shared path forward beats scaring all the stakeholders into their corners. Of course, now all of these stakeholders have to fulfill their commitments in order to make today’s decision stick,” he said.

[Ten animals that could disappear with the western sagebrush]

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also hailed the collaboration as “an important milestone in the history of the Endangered Species Act.” But lab Director John Fitzpatrick stressed that “intensive monitoring will be absolutely imperative” to prove that it is effective.

Yet WildEarth Guardians, which had pushed for sage grouse to be listed as endangered, said it appeared industry and its supporters had won. “The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the organization.

A second group, Defenders of Wildlife, predicted that in the absence of an endangered listing, current plans would fall short.

“They failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat,” said President and Chief Executive Jamie Rappaport Clark.

And in contrast to environmental groups who wanted stronger protections, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert expressed “deep concern” that they go too far. He said Interior’s “actions constitute the equivalent of a listing decision outside the normal process” and reiterated that his state was better positioned to manage its sage grouse population – though critics say Utah’s past actions contributed to the bird’s decline.

Saving the population is key because the sage grouse is an umbrella species whose health reflects the condition of the greater sagebrush sea, which extends from Washington to New Mexico. The prickly scrub brush there serves as nests and shelter for hundreds of species and as an emergency food source for large animals such as pronghorn that endure long winter migrations.

Jewell’s appearance in Colorado also marked release by the Bureau of Land Management of its final draft of a plan to implement more than 90 land-use strategies to better protect sage grouse from gold mining, natural gas drilling and cattle grazing on property the government leases to businesses.

Fish and Wildlife Service first said no when environmental groups initially requested an endangered listing, noting that the grouse population had plummeted from an estimated several million to fewer than 400,000 around the turn of the century. A court battle forced the agency to reconsider, and in 2010, it determined that the sage grouse deserved consideration for a listing because its habitat had been greatly disturbed by mineral mining, natural gas drilling and giant wildfires fueled by an invasive species called cheatgrass.

That year, the conservation collaboration that Jewell praised was launched by states, ranchers and industry executives with two objectives — protecting the grouse and restoring its habitat, and derailing a listing that could significantly limit future development.

[The Western sagebrush is a backdrop in every epic cowboy movie. Can it be saved?]

More than half of the land that makes up sage grouse habitat is owned by the BLM and Forest Service. But government officials said this week that the conservation response, spurred by the threat of an endangered listing, was strong even on private land, with 1,100 ranchers who farm more than four million acres joining the effort over five years.

“We’ve written an important chapter in sage-grouse conservation, but the story is far from over,” Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. The new partnerships, he said, “will reap dividends for sage grouse, big game and other wildlife while protecting a way of life in the West.”

What remains to be seen is whether industry and ranchers can tiptoe around sage grouse habitat without having a negative impact on a skittish bird. Oil and gas companies have told workers to avoid driving at night as not to disturb the grouse’s breeding hours. Another company invented a way to suppress invasive cheatgrass that is pushing out sagebrush. And nearly all private companies are planting sagebrush to replace what was lost, which takes years because of the plant’s slow growth.

The BLM is pressing companies to do more. Its new land use plans will create buffer zones around sage grouse habitat to reduce noises that cause the birds to flinch. Sage grouse scatter when frightened, and when they do they are vulnerable to isolation and numerous predators, from foxes to badgers to eagles.

Cheatgrass brought more than a century go by humans is perfect fuel for monster wildfires. The invasive grass grows much faster than sagebrush and steals more territory after massive burns. Conifer trees that were out of place in the habitat also grew, providing a new place for golden eagles, hawks and other birds of prey to perch to hunt and kill sage grouse.

When the grouse flew low to escape an attack, they often flew into the barbed wire fences of ranchers, where they were impaled. One initiative to save sage grouse is marking the fences with white reflectors so the fleeing birds can avoid them. Years of study are needed to determine if any of the private and government measures will work.

Federal officials vowed to continue monitoring impacts to sage grouse and its habitat and to revisit the listing decision in five years. But lawsuits from both sides of the divide could force the Obama administration back to the drawing board much sooner.

Herbert is upset because Utah had a lot riding on the decision. Utah estimated that it would lose more than $40 billion in economic production from oil and gas if the sage grouse is listed. Wyoming also had a lot to lose; it has the largest sage grouse population in the West, more than 50 percent of the birds and is second in the nation in energy production.

Federal officials have said that governors in those states threatened to abandon their own conservation efforts if the federal government designated sage grouse as threatened or endangered. Other states in the sagebrush sea are Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are in the sagebrush range.

[Why sage grouse could be the next spotted owl]

WildEarth Guardians and other environmental groups have hinted at suing to force stronger protections. They say that BLM “removed priority habitat” status from 16 million acres in 2013. Nevada lost 47 percent of its priority habitat, “resulting in a scattering of tiny and isolated …  habitat fragments” for grouse populations that declined by more that 25 percent since 2007, the group claims.

This story has been corrected to include the full name of Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife. 

Also in Energy & Environment:

Sage grouse won’t get protection at the Nevada-California border

There are only 400,000 sage grouse left. Here’s the government’s plan to save an awesome bird

The world’s 3 trillion trees, mapped

The top five things Pope Francis gets totally right about climate change

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