Sage grouse decision demonstrates clout of the Endangered Species Act


On Sept. 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a landmark decision, declaring that the greater sage grouse, that icon of the Western High Plains, does not warrant federal protection. The chicken-sized bird’s numbers have dwindled from a historic high of perhaps 16 million to about 400,000, as its sagebrush range has been transformed into oil and gas fields, wind farms, ranches and subdivisions. 

The federal decision is a favorable verdict on one of the biggest conservation experiments ever undertaken. To avoid an Endangered Species Act listing, which could put the brakes on many human activities across 11 Western states, local and regional partnerships and collaborative efforts poured immense amounts of money and effort into trying to save the bird. 

People working at every level of government, along with ranchers, energy companies, utilities, mining companies and others, came up with action plans. They’ve done everything from placing conservation easements to halt development, to changing how cattle are grazed, to setting up shipping containers around drill rigs to create buffers that shield breeding grounds from disruptive noise. 

“I believe this is the way to do conservation,” says Brian Rutledge, vice president of the national Audubon Society, referring to the compromises that have been made. “We’re engaging every tier of society that’s making a living in sagebrush. (But) we’re not stopping development, and everybody’s a little unhappy.” 

Many of those collaborative efforts had been going on at some level for decades. But everything got kicked into high gear in 2010, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first announced that the sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act -- although other vanishing species took higher priority. 

Surprisingly, many seemed to argue that doing nothing was best; if we just left the bird alone, everything would turn out fine. True, nature is resilient, and often recovers on its own when we quit trying to fix things. But we can’t just leave the bird alone, because we are not leaving its habitat alone. We continue to drill and mine and ranch and build in the open spaces the bird needs to survive. We’ve now intervened so drastically in the sagebrush range  -- less than 10 percent is still untouched, say biologists -- that doing nothing is not an option. 

Clait Braun, a biologist who’s spent his life studying sage grouse, predicts that within 30 years the birds will persist only in small isolated populations. And that’s even with all the massive conservation efforts that have been undertaken. But if the grouse vanishes, we’ll suddenly realize that pretty much every other species of wildlife that the sagebrush habitat supports has also vanished – including quintessential Western wildlife like mule deer and elk, as well as 350 other kinds of creatures. 

To avoid that outcome, the federal agencies that control two-thirds of sage grouse range, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, put restraints on fossil fuel development, mining and wind farms in areas key to grouse. On the private-land side, the Sage Grouse Initiative and other partnerships have been giving ranchers incentives to improve their properties, which host 80 percent of the wetland areas the birds need, and to protect big chunks of undisturbed habitat from development. 

The big question: Will all this turn out to be enough to keep sage grouse around for our grandkids’ grandkids to see? Because the bird is long-lived and its populations tend to fluctuate, we won’t know until years from now how this experiment turns out. If it isn’t working, we’re going to have to give more, sacrifice more, and restrain our urge to develop and exploit even further -- or the federal government will step back in and finally put the bird on the endangered species list.

That’s an outcome very few want to see. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in announcing that the grouse doesn’t need protection, is signaling that it’s confident that the decision will stand up to the inevitable court challenges. The greater sage grouse may well end up showing us that some laws function best when they don’t go into effect at all. A listing under the Endangered Species Act would have pushed a lot of anti-federal Westerners away from the voluntary incentives and collaboration that the mere threat of that listing has encouraged. 

The Endangered Species Act, notes Rutledge, “is almost always better used as a motivator as opposed to an outcome. It moves people to get the work done – and it’s very effective in that light.” 

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of NewTowncarShare News, where she is a senior editor based in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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