The greater sage grouse “does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Tuesday, marking a milepost in western land stewardship.
Speaking at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado, Jewell hailed “the largest, most complex land conservation [effort] ever in the history of the United States of America, perhaps the world.” State, private and federal conservation plans ensure the imperiled bird’s survival, she said.
She broke the news in a video posted Tuesday morning, just before the announcement.
“It means certainty,” Jewell said of the plans, including sweeping Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service conservation reforms. “It also means a lot of work ahead.”
— Sally Jewell (@SecretaryJewell) September 22, 2015
Those conservation plans and that upcoming work will protect 67 million acres of sage grouse habitat, including 12 million acres of high-value sagebrush focal areas, she said. Goals are to minimize new disturbance, restore sagebrush habitat, and fight fire and invasive cheatgrass. Conservation plans will reduce threats across 90 percent of breeding habitat, Jewell said. Ninety percent of lands with oil and gas potential are “outside priority areas.” The plans avoid conflict that listing the grouse as threatened or endangered would have created across the West. Energy and agriculture interests rely heavily on the sagebrush landscape, and an ESA listing could have curtailed some of those activities.
Love-fest at Colorado announcement
The love-fest announcement in Colorado included Gov. Matt Mead and three other western governors, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe and other officials. The decision that the greater sage grouse is no longer a candidate species for ESA protection drew criticism, too.
Federal and state plans “failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. Those failures include no protection of winter habitat and no plan to address climate change.
Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said the grouse faces threats from industrial development and livestock grazing. “And now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” he said in a statement. “Today Secretary Jewell declared victory before the battle is actually won. What came out the other end of the sausage grinder is a weak collection of compromises that will not and cannot conserve the species.”
Another critical group, Western Watersheds Project, said Jewell “seemed determined to put a happy face on the future of the American West.” She did not make hard decisions to limit energy development, prohibit transmission lines and block spring cattle grazing, said Travis Bruner, executive director. “There is no ‘win’ here for sage-grouse,” he said in a statement. “There is only a slightly slower trajectory towards extinction.”
In Commerce City, however, officials detailed myriad changes since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 determined regulations were insufficient to save the bird.
“We went to work with a lot of partners,” Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe said. “The result is a remarkable turn of events.” Threats from oil and gas development are “remarkably reduced.” Most important and vulnerable habitat is not at risk from agricultural conversion.
“It’s a good day to be a sage grouse,” Ashe said.
Wyoming got credit on several fronts. As the state with the largest concentration of greater sage grouse — 38 percent of the birds in the country — the Equality State played a substantial role in his decision.
“I have to point out the leadership we saw from the State of Wyoming,” Ashe said. “In 2008 Wyoming showed us what was possible.”
That’s the year Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) signed an executive order calling for conservation of greater sage grouse. It grew into a core-area strategy and required state agencies to hew to conservation measures, such as limiting the amount of disturbance in a square mile and keeping development away from breeding leks.
That plan has its critics who say core areas were gerrymandered to exclude energy interests, among other criticisms. But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service agencies have largely adopted Wyoming’s measures into plans Fish and Wildlife has now endorsed.
Gov. Matt Mead (R) subsequently updated the executive order and received praise from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). Mead, Hickenlooper said, did “all the serious heavy lifting.”
The word from Zenith
Mead himself quoted his great grandfather as an example of Western ranchers’ conservation ethos. Peter Christofferson Hansen ranched in the now-vanished Jackson Hole community of Zenith and fathered former Gov. Cliff Hansen, Mead’s grandfather. Peter Hansen’s advice was passed to son, grandson and great grandson: “In Wyoming, where you find a blade of grass, leave two.”
“What we’ve done with this collaborative effort is left another blade of grass,” Mead said. “This collaborative [sage grouse] effort is the model,” of how the Endangered Species Act should work. “By all accounts this is a great victory.”
National Audubon Society vice president Brian Rutledge also recognized the initiative of Freudenthal, “the grumpy uncle of all things sagebrush.” Rutledge said westerners have “dragged the blades of our self-interest” across the sagebrush sea, injuring that landscape. “Today we start to bind up the wounds.”
Bob Budd, chairman of Mead’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, said he appreciated Ashe’s comments about the rigor of the science behind the decision. Budd oversaw a marathon Wyoming effort to update Mead’s executive order. The task included numerous meetings of regional working groups that hammered out habitat maps and other measures.
“It’s been a long process,” he said. “Nobody weakened, nobody gave up. Everybody kept their eye on the goal,” which is grouse conservation and preservation of Wyoming’s economic underpinnings of mineral extraction.
At a press conference in Cheyenne later Tuesday, Budd dismissed criticisms that federal and state plans did not adequately recognize sage grouse winter concentration areas. In Sublette County, Jonah Energy seeks to drill 3,500 wells in the proposed 141,00-acre Normally Pressured Lance Field that overlaps a wintering area for 1,500 – 2,000 birds.
What development the birds can tolerate in those wintering areas is unknown, Budd said. Jonah Energy has pledged not to drill in the winter concentration areas “until we know what those tolerances are,” he said.
In Sublette County, crossroads of gas development and sage grouse habitat, rancher and state Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) touted grassroots work. “It is comforting,” he said. “It’s welcome news, that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that local efforts … by ranchers, by conservationists, efforts by states, matter. They recognize there’s a way to get things done without bringing the total hammer of ESA down.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen will go back to work, doing what he’s done for years. “It’s basically a waypoint on a long journey that will never end,” he said. “It’s gratifying to hear,” he said of the announcement, “and we can take a deep breath. But we can’t stop what we’re doing in keeping moving forward.”
— Michal Rosenoer (@Michal_Rose) September 22, 2015
Check out WyoFile’s in-depth coverage of sage grouse issues — reporting that the policymakers had to follow. — Ed