Sage Grouse Not Endangered, Fish and Wildlife Service Decides

Published October 20, 2015

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it has declined to list the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The September 22 decision was cheered by some environmentalists and states, decried by others, and seems unlikely to end the nearly decade-long controversy over how best to reverse the sage grouse’s long-term decline.

The greater sage grouse population has declined by an estimated 90 percent across its 167 million acres of habitat in 11 Western states. In response to legal deadlines that emerged from court battles FWS had with various environmental groups over a backlog of listing decisions, the agency had until September 30 to decide whether to list the sage grouse as endangered.

State Programs Successful

Joined on stage by the governors of Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming, Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell said enormous voluntary conservation efforts on state and private lands, combined with a new plan for the management of nearly 62 million acres of sage grouse habitat on federal lands in Western states, prevented the need to list the sage grouse as endangered.

Brain Seasholes, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, described FWS’s new sage grouse management plan as “the department taking 98 individual plans managing various parcels of federal land for multiple uses and combining them into 15 ‘mega’ greater sage grouse-specific plans.”

“This is truly a historic effort, one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” said Jewell when announcing the decision.

“Today’s decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities.” 

‘Death Knell’ Claim

Representatives of environmental lobbying groups decried FWS’s decision not to list the sage grouse as endangered, saying the agency caved to the economic concerns of state governments and commercial interests. They say Jewell’s announcement represents a “death knell” for the sage grouse.

Despite support from some state governors, those in other states and many in industry say the FWS’s “voluntary” conservation plans and the new rules FWS is implementing for public lands in states with grouse habitat amount to a de facto listing of the sage grouse as endangered, just not a de jure listing.

In a statement responding to Jewell’s announcement, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said he is “deeply concerned” about FWS’s decision.

“Today’s actions constitute the equivalent of a listing decision outside the normal process and fail to support an appropriate balance between conservation and other public uses of the land,” said Herbert in his statement.

“These federal land-use plan amendments are unnecessarily restrictive in nature and devalue Utah’s management plan and the conservation commitments from private landowners,” said Herbert.

The State of Idaho, two counties in Nevada, and mining interests in the region share Herbert’s concerns and have filed separate lawsuits to block the sage grouse management plans. Idaho’s lawsuit lists Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the state legislature as plaintiffs, accusing the Obama administration of a lack of transparency in devising its sage grouse conservation strategy.

“We didn’t want the [Endangered Species Act] listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse,” Otter said in a statement accompanying the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC.

The second lawsuit, filed by two Nevada counties and several mining companies, asks the court to block new restrictions on mining, energy development, and grazing under the sage grouse plan.

Expanding Federal Land Control

Seasholes says the new federal plan seems unlikely to succeed in protecting the grouse because it creates disincentives for private land owners to protect lands populated with sage grouse.

“Private lands contain upwards of 80 percent of the critically important wetland habitat sage grouse, especially hens and chicks, require in the summer when the weather gets hotter and drier,” said Seasholes. “Successful conservation depends on the willing cooperation of, and creating incentives for, landowners. Unfortunately, the amended federal land-use plans create divisions, mistrust, and disincentives to conserve the sage grouse.

“For example, the plans strongly suggest grazing is going to be reduced or perhaps eliminated on 11.2 million acres of federal land designated as Sagebrush Focal Areas, making life more difficult for ranchers,” Seasholes said.

R. J. Smith, a distinguished fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees with Seasholes’ assessment.

“The Interior Department’s September 22 decision that the ESA listing of the greater sage grouse was unnecessary because of the successes of the unprecedented five-year-long effort by 11 Western states, multiple counties, Indian tribes, energy and mining industries, cattle ranchers and landowners, off-road recreationists, and even many Greens, to devise their own conservation plans and thereby preclude draconian ESA regulations, was a cruel hoax.

“Upon careful examination, the federal government’s acceptance of these state and voluntary conservation plans reveals that they have placed such a restrictive command-and-control overlay of long, complex [Bureau of Land Management] land-use plans atop the Western plans as to completely trump them,” Smith said. “The federal plan was not about protecting and recovering the sage grouse, but instead an effort to vastly increase national land-use control across the Western states.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.