In hopes of keeping the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list, Wyoming has created a new model for wide-reaching species conservation while letting industry activity continue on the landscape. But the state is running out of time to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that sage grouse are safe from threats that could drive them to extinction. Recent court decisions about wolves and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse determined that even if a species is managed differently in different states, it must have the same endangered status across state lines. That means even if Wyoming protects all the grouse in the core areas, the bird could be listed anyway due to threats in other western states.
Two national conservation groups — Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — have reached a settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that requires that agency to decide whether the greater sage grouse deserves endangered species protection by 2015. Meanwhile a third group, Western Watersheds Project, sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking a court order for the agency to list the sage grouse. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead intervened in the lawsuit to try to buy time for sage grouse conservation plans. Wyoming’s briefs defended the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to prioritize other species before making a listing decision for the grouse. A federal judge in Idaho heard the case at the end of July.
Meanwhile, Mead is convening a meeting later this month with governors from other sage grouse states to help and encourage them to follow Wyoming’s example and come up with similar plans. But time is running out. Wyoming has been meticulously developing its own plan for more than ten years, gathering public input and carefully mapping and surveying thousands of sage grouse leks, or breeding grounds. Whether Washington, Oregon, eastern California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas can all devise and implement equally protective measures in time to influence the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the grouse doesn’t need endangered species protection remains to be seen.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management began developing its own National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy this summer. The agency manages about 57 million acres of sage grouse habitat range-wide, more than any other government agency and more than half of the grouse’s occupied range. The BLM will follow Wyoming’s lead to map and identify key sage grouse habitat and then work with states to come up with conservation strategies on those lands. The agency plans to do a programmatic sage grouse environmental analysis, and to incorporate conservation into as many as 70 individual resource management plans for areas it oversees in sage grouse habitat.
“Are they under a time crunch?” says Pat Deibert, national sage grouse coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of the BLM. “Yeah. But they are very motivated to make this happen. We’ll see. I’m not going to be discouraging at this point in time.”