Saving The Sage Grouse: Is Just The Threat Of An Endangered Species Listing Enough?

Sep 11, 2015

Alarm bells echoed across the West in 2010 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the greater sage grouse could be put on the Endangered Species List. The end of this month is the deadline for a final decision. In the interim, there has been an enormous amount of work done to protect the bird – enough to suggest a threat is sometimes big enough to get the job done.

Could this have been the intent all along? To make the threat big enough so that an actual listing might be avoided?

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources habitat program manager Mark Farmer has spent much of his time since 2010 working on state and federal land to restore a more grouse-friendly mix of sagebrush and native grasses in central Utah.

Landmarks here and across sage country are named for a bird once so ubiquitous, huge flocks were said to darken the sky: Chicken Springs, Chicken Ridge, Grouse Lane.

But today, Farmer is happy just to spot droppings: proof the sage grouse are using the area.

Mark Farmer leads a group on a tour in sage grouse habitat.
Credit Julie Rose

“They’re kind of like a Mike and Ike (candy) size,” he says scanning the ground, pointing to the animal's waste. 

Habitat improvement efforts have gone on across the West on public and private land, like the 200,000 acre Deseret Land and Livestock – Utah’s largest private ranch and home to one of the state’s largest sage grouse populations.

“The threat of listing is that sword that’s hanging over my head,” says Todd Black, who manages wildlife resources at the ranch. For decades, he says Deseret has managed its landscape for both grazing and wildlife – turns out what’s good for cattle is often good for grouse, too.

But Black is convinced an endangered listing would tangle his hands in bureaucracy.   

“If it gets listed, now every time we go to turn dirt out on the ground, whether it’s on private ground or public ground, you have to have formal consultation with the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service to do anything, and that’s a huge constipation of our government,” says Black.

The other perspective is that it would keep landowners from devastating sensitive sage grouse habitat, either willfully or on accident. But the point here is that it’s in the blood of Westerners to bristle against federal intervention.

Taylor Payne, Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator of the Utah Department of Agriculture with Todd Black.
Credit Julie Rose

“I believe this is much more about controlling our lands than it is about protecting the sage grouse,” says Commissioner Mike McKee from energy-rich Uintah County, Utah.

McKee – and the many who share his view – have swallowed their disgust at what they see as federal overreach to join the sage grouse protection effort, because the stakes are very high. An endangered species listing could stall drilling, grazing, building and even road construction on 176 million acres in eleven states.

The thought has been a powerful motivation for Utah rancher and state lawmaker Scott Chew. 

“It’s not like somebody’s afraid there’s a boogeyman out there," he says. "There is a boogeyman out there.”

And so, unlike previous endangered species threats with a smaller footprint, when interested parties essentially retreated to prepare for legal battle this time, “there’s really been a remarkable convergence of intent to fix the problem,” says Theo Stein, a sage grouse public affairs specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That intent has included $300 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for habitat improvement projects.

The move to fix the problem has also taken the form of state and federal sage grouse-protection plans, hashed out at tables by groups who rarely collaborate: private landowners, public land managers, energy industry representatives, wildlife biologists, politicians and environmentalists.

So, was this the plan all along? To scare everyone into action so a listing wouldn’t be necessary?

“This is the way the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work,” Stein says. “It’s supposed to flag problems when the Fish and Wildlife Service initiates a review of a species. It’s supposed to identify the threat. And it’s supposed to encourage the stake holders to address these threats.”

Western land and wildlife officials have spent five years trying to prove they’re up to the challenge.

Whatever the final decision on sage grouse, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell boasts the collaborative efforts of the last five years could be a new path for conservation in America. 

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