The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management just released their Greater Sage-grouse Landscape plan—a plan to manage the BLM lands in each state that contain sagebrush habitat. This is a big, big deal in the debate over the sage-grouse, and whether or not it should be listed as an endangered species. Today’s plans are a huge step forward from previous iterations, and really move the needle on western sagebrush conservation—something that’s critically needed at this point in time. But how did we get here, and what comes next?
Refresher—what’s going on with the Greater sage-grouse?
As we’re pretty sure you haven’t been able to escape learning, sage-grouse are a ground-dwelling bird species related to the prairie chicken that thrives in the sage-steppe habitat, located across eleven western states. This species of grouse has seen its population drop from over 16 million historically to under 500,000 in the last decade, largely because of lost habitat. As a result, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been tasked with determining whether to add sage-grouse to the endangered species list, a decision they must make by September 2015.
If the sage-grouse is listed as endangered, access to and utility of significant critical acreage across the West could be limited or even restricted. That means that the $1 billion recreation economy that depends on sagebrush habitat gets drastically reduced, as well as ranching, farming, energy development, and tourism—all the livelihoods that depend on the sagebrush habitat to exist will be impacted. Sage-grouse does not discriminate based on land ownership, either—their habitat covers swaths of private, state, and federal land ownership across the West, 50 million acres of which are BLM lands.
Ok, so what are people doing about it?
First off, you should know that there’s been an “unprecedented” collaborative effort on the part of diverse western stakeholders, who have come together to avoid a listing in order to defend their economies and protect their livelihoods. These stakeholders include ranchers, farmers, outdoor recreationists, conservationists, sportsmen, industry, small businesses, and many others—anyone who depends on access to the sagebrush landscape for their way of life. There’s also been an impressive cooperative effort across all levels of government—state, local, and federal—to ensure that things are getting done at each level to protect grouse habitat, and that these efforts are coordinated. There’s been some strong leadership from western governors, from the Secretary of the Interior, and from state and local electeds.
At the federal level, the BLM released draft plans for their portion of sagebrush habitat management for each state back in December. Everyone agreed that these plans weren’t great—they didn’t go far enough to protect sage-grouse, which in turn means they didn’t go far enough to protect western economies. With today’s proposed final plans, however, we have reason to believe that they’ll be stronger and better than before. State government agencies has also been implementing their own habitat management plans for populations on lands in their jurisdiction. And the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has worked with private landowners to implement best practices and other conservation efforts on their lands, with great success.
This hard work by westerners has already avoided one listing—the bi-state sage-grouse population, located in Nevada and California, was declared “not warranted” for a listing just last month, thanks to the collaborations of everyone on the ground. As long as westerners keep their foot on the gas, this trajectory means that a listing could likely be avoided for the greater population, as well.
That all sounds pretty good—why is everyone still so worried?
Unfortunately, a few members of Congress—out of touch with their constituents—are seeking to undermine all the hard work done up to this point by westerners with efforts to legislatively delay a grouse listing. Sen. Cory Gardner introduced a bill to delay any decision about a listing for ten years, and Rep. Rob Bishop slipped in an amendment to the defense bill that would delay a listing decision for ten years. These are just scare tactics that will kick the can down the road and further endanger westerners’ way of life. More time just means more uncertainty for everyone involved. Westerners are well-aware of what a bad idea these delays are for their long-term economic outlook, but the small opposition has a loud voice and has made some people nervous.
Ok, so what happens now?
Now, FWS will review the BLM’s state plans, and they’ll look at the progress that state agencies and private landowners have made in protecting habitat. If Congress doesn’t get away with undermining westerners, then FWS will still announce whether the sage-grouse will be added the endangered species list in September 2015. Thanks to the hard work of cooperation of westerners and most of their elected officials, there’s strong reason to believe a listing could be avoided.