Why Today’s Bi-State Sage-Grouse Decision is an Encouraging Sign

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that a sub-population of greater sage-grouse found only in California and Nevada does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Greater Sage-Grouse | USFWS

Big deal, right? Actually, yes. While this decision only concerns the distinct “Mono Basin” population of the Western ground nesting bird, the decision demonstrates that collaborative conservation efforts among agencies, private landowners and communities really can make a difference.

This is especially important as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether the greater sage-grouse requires protection across its 11-state range. With such an expansive range across the West, the bird has attracted a great deal of attention. Under court order, the agency must make a determination on the greater sage-grouse by September 30, 2015 – despite the fact that last year Congress voted to prevent the agency from spending any money on implementing a listing decision for at least a year.

These are tough decisions, with many complex factors to consider. The sage-grouse is a bellwether species that indicates the health of our vast sagebrush and grasslands across the West. Stressed by drought, fire, fragmentation and many factors, sage-grouse productivity has been declining for decades. Fortunately, we also know that there are key places where conservation can have a positive impact on the species range-wide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rightfully takes a measured approach to any action that could affect not only wildlife, but also the communities impacted by an Endangered Species Act listing.

So today’s announcement that the California-Nevada sub-population of greater sage-grouse does not require an ESA listing is significant. Here’s why:

  • It shows that collaborative conservation is a successful model. The Bi-State Local Working Group, which included federal, state and local agencies and private landowners, created an action plan that identifies a series of conservation measures – and secured $45 million to implement those projects over the next ten years. The fact that the agency has decided this population does not require listing indicates this science-based collaboration is paying off.
  • It proves that targeted efforts to conserve sagebrush habitat are working. The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has led the way by placing more than $20 million in conservation assistance in this landscape and jump starting cooperative work with private landowners. It takes many agencies and interests working together – Forest Service, state agency counterparts and the Department of Interior agencies as well. In prepared remarks for the announcement in Reno today, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, “The collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and Californian are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development.”

While entirely unrelated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s impending range-wide decision on the greater sage-grouse, today’s announcement indicates that the agency is considering all of the evidence, including the important collaborations happening on the ground between federal, state and private landowners to protect sagebrush steppe species.

Duane Coombs, ranch manager at Smith Creek Ranch in central Nevada, wrote an eloquent op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun in December, 2013 when comments were still being taken on the bi-state population of sage-grouse. In it, Coombs, a board member of the nonprofit Partners for Conservation, noted that the sage-grouse can teach us all a lesson. “This bird flies across public and private lands and sees one landscape,” Coombs wrote. “The bird knows instinctively what Aldo Leopold coined as the land ethic.”

Coombs’ point is well-taken. Only time will tell whether the greater sage-grouse merits listing under the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, today’s announcement is a great reminder that by working together, the many, many stakeholders across the 11-state range of the greater sage grouse can be part of the solutions that balance wildlife habitat and working lands for the benefit of all.


Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/04/why-todays-bi-state-sage-grouse-decision-is-an-encouraging-sign/

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