White House officials said Thursday they would decide next fall whether an imperiled, wide-ranging grassland bird needs federal safeguards even though Congress just passed legislation aimed at blocking such a move.
The fate of the greater sage grouse — which is known for its ancient mating dance and whose historic habitat encompasses 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces — presents a major political and economic challenge for the Obama administration. It has been negotiating with many western governors to see if enough public and private land can be put aside to avert listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
“This does nothing to stop the administration from continuing bipartisan work with the governors [to put] measures in place with the aim of avoiding the need to list this as endangered or threatened in the first place,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, adding that the bill still “contains funding for the kind of conservation measures we believe will be important for conserving the sage grouse.”
Earnest’s comments came one day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her department would move ahead with data collection and other steps it needs to make a final decision on the species by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
The grouse’s vast territory of more than 165 million acres is home to booming energy development, such as oil and gas fields and wind farms, along with farming and ranching activities. Those operations, along with more frequent wildfires and increased sprawl, have eroded the species’s habitat to the point that it has declined roughly 90 percent compared to its historic numbers. Its population now ranges somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 birds.
Under a landmark agreement the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached with environmental groups in 2011, federal officials agreed to make a final listing decision on the species by September 2015. Republicans inserted language into the $1.1 trillion spending bill that President Obama signed Tuesday that would prohibit any federal funds from being spent on regulations that would protect either the greater sage grouse or three other species of grassland birds.
Federal officials have been reviewing plans that governors in affected states have been drawing up in the hopes of avoiding an endangered species listing. The greater sage grouse lives in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Opponents of listing the greater sage grouse, which avoids tall structures including wind towers and oil rigs because predators can perch on them, argue that new federal protections could impede energy development in the west. Several environmental groups, however, say that a listing will not only help keep the species from disappearing but also will preserve one of the world’s last remaining large grasslands.
Environmental groups have criticized the White House for not fighting harder to remove the sage grouse provision from the spending bill.
Mark Salvo, director of federal lands conservation at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, wrote in an e-mail, “We hope federal agencies and Western states will continue to finalize draft conservation plans for greater sage-grouse this year, while also improving those strategies, where necessary, to ensure the species’ recovery.”