Historic effort keeps sage grouse off endangered list

WASHINGTON — The greater sage grouse will not be placed on the endangered species list, due to the greatest conservation effort in U.S. history, federal officials said Tuesday.

The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the iconic bird was announced at a news conference at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She also disclosed the final conservation plans for management of more than 50 million acres of greater sage grouse habitat across 10 Western states.

Unprecedented cooperation among federal, state, and local government, along with ranchers, conservation groups and industry to create conservation plans was credited with forestalling the need to designate the sage grouse as endangered. Many Western political and business leaders had feared the restrictions created by such a listing would damage the regional economy.

“This is the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the United States of America, perhaps the world,” Jewell said.

Dave Budeau, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s upland game bird coordinator, echoed those sentiments.

“It was a huge, gigantic, complex effort that involved lots of different stakeholders, state and federal agencies, private conservation groups, ranchers, counties and then across 11 Western states,” he said. “So yes, it’s even hard to explain how big of an effort this was.”

Jewell was joined at the announcement by Govs. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Steve Bullock of Montana, both Democrats, and Republican Govs. Matt Mead of Wyoming and Brian Sandoval of Nevada.

Other Western governors who couldn’t attend, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, also offered support for the announcements.

“Oregonians have reason to be very proud of the work done by partners supporting healthy Oregon ecosystems, rural communities, and economies,” Brown said. She cited the work of a state partnership for helping wildlife “while also addressing threats to the vitality of our farms and ranches, outdoor recreation, energy development, and other sectors.”

Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley both hailed the announcements.

Said Wyden: “I applaud the efforts of ranchers, conservationists, governors and others who have come to the table, signed agreements and worked hard on the ground to fight for rural Oregon jobs and communities.  This victory just goes to show how collaboration between private stakeholders and local, state and federal leaders can lead to balanced, sustainable solutions for the management of wildlife and our public lands.”

Merkley called the announcements “a victory for conservation and a huge relief for so many of our rural Oregon communities.”

“A sage grouse listing could have been devastating for many Oregon ranchers, and for the economic vitality of Eastern Oregon,” Merkley said.

Budeau said efforts in Wyoming and Oregon had been under way since the initial March 10 decision that listing was warranted but precluded, making the iconic bird a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“The state of Wyoming had adopted core, kind of a core-area approach to conservation before we did,” he said. “But we adopted that similar approach with our 2011 Sage Grouse Strategy and Assessment … So when the national effort came on board we were ready to hit the ground running.

“And I think that shows up in the number of acres treated in Oregon because it was already going.”

Conservation groups also approved of the decisions, but especially lauded the conservation plans that paved the way for it.

“These strong, science-based plans constitute a historic conservation action,” said Ken Rait, director of the U.S. public lands program at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“The plans incorporate the best available science and responsibly balance energy development, recreation, grazing, and other activities on public lands while still protecting the Western way of life,” Rait said.

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said the conservation plans will not only protect the greater sage grouse but also habitat for about 300 other species, including pronghorn, mule deer and elk.

“What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.” O’Mara said.

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the conservation plans marked a “massive shift in the way our nation thinks about how to defend and protect wild animals and landscapes.”

“It’s all hands on deck, with states and private landowners as essential partners with the federal government working together,” Suh said.

While lauding the decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered, the Western Energy Alliance was critical of the land conservation plans.

“The Interior Department arrived at the right decision, but took the wrong path to get there,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the alliance.

Sgamma hinted the alliance, which represents more than 450 oil and natural gas exploration and production companies, may challenge the plans in court.

Jewell said the plans balance conservation with resource development, pointing out that 90 percent of land with high and medium oil and gas potential covered by the plans is not subject to the strongest protections.

The chicken-sized greater sage grouse is known for its elaborate mating dance.

Where there were once millions across the West, the population is now estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

One of the huge benefits is that sage grouse conservation benefits a host of other species, Budeau said.

“That’s one thing about using sage grouse,” he said. “They’re kind of the icon or the representative of the sagebrush ecosystem. So by working together on sage grouse conservation it helps protect a whole bunch of other species that are a way of life in rural eastern Oregon. I think sage grouse serves as that umbrella species for that bigger picture in the sage brush steppe ecosystem.

“In fact a lot of the efforts that we have done as an agency with the department of fish and wildlife for sage grouse and mule deer go hand in hand. So mule deer initiative efforts and sage grouse initiative efforts are often the same action on the ground.”