The greater sage grouse, a bird that’s been at the center of a major conservation fight over the last year, will not be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Department of Interior announced Tuesday.
In a video announcement, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called the decision a “milestone for conservation in America.” She said that the decision not to list the bird — a designation that would have meant that the greater sage grouse was “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” and would have subjected it to certain federal protections — came because of an “unprecedented” conservation effort in 11 western states over the last few years.
Basically, that conservation effort among state leaders, ranchers, conservation groups, and other stakeholders has made enough progress that the bird’s future looks bright enough to leave it off the endangered species list. Avoiding the listing also carries lessons for conserving other threatened species, proponents say, and impacts energy development on public lands.
“This is a new paradigm for dealing with managed public lands across the West,” Jim Lyons, deputy assistant secretary for the Land and Minerals Management program of the Department of the Interior, said on a call Monday.
Gary Frazer, the Assistant Director for Endangered Species, said on the call that the scientific research that went into deciding whether or not to list the species found that this conservation effort reduced the greater sage grouse’s key risks by up to 90 percent. Those risks include rangeland fires, which experts on the call said was the key threat faced by sage grouse. Other threats include invasive cheatgrass, which crowds out the native sagebrush that the sage grouse depends on and also exacerbates the risk of rangeland fires. Habitat fragmentation, due to development of homes, businesses, and energy sources like oil and gas, is also making life difficult for the sage grouse, whose population has plunged from as many as 16 million a century ago to less than half a million today. The sage grouse, a bird that, each year, displays a magnificent mating ritual among the sagebrush, is an indicator species — if the bird’s populations are healthy, it’s likely that the overall sagebrush habitat is healthy too.
Now that the decision not to list the bird is final, the oil and gas leases in the western states that had been deferred while the decision was being made will now be evaluated by the Bureau of Land Management. The officials on the call said that the federal government would prioritize oil and gas leases that fall outside of the birds’ habitat.
Brian Rutledge, Central Flyway conservation strategy and policy adviser for the Audubon Society’s Rockies office, said that as long as the federal government sticks to its plan to preserve sage grouse habitat on public lands — a plan that includes limits on oil, gas, solar, and wind development inside the sage grouse’s habitat — he doesn’t think additional drilling will be a major threat to the bird. He also said that the changes in energy development in the West that have been implemented over the last 10 years have been beneficial for sage grouse. In Wyoming — the first state in the West to implement a sage grouse conservation plan — there’s been a 60 percent reduction of conventional drilling in major sage grouse regions, a process that creates “maximum disturbance,” Rutledge said. At the same time, there’s been a 1,600 percent increase in directional drilling, a process in which up to 30 wells can be drilled from one drilling pad and therefore takes up less land than conventional drilling. Still, though directional drilling is better for the landscape, it doesn’t carry any benefits for the climate — extracting more oil from a single well, rather than multiple wells, still means that oil will be emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Overall, Rutledge is happy with the decision not to list the sage grouse. A listing, he said, would have put the fate of the sage grouse solely in the hands of the federal government — whereas right now, the bird has officials and stakeholders from 11 western states working on its protection. Allowing the states to continue to work on the conservation of the sage grouse will maintain and hopefully increase the level of investment in the sage grouse’s future.
“Having worked on the Endangered Species Act since its inception, this is how it’s intended to be used,” Rutledge told ThinkProgress. “It’s not to see how many things we can list — it’s to avoid the necessity of listing. It encourages us to plan for the future of our ecosystems and species rather than using this as a catch all.”
The Endangered Species Act, he said, “doesn’t have the ability to do everything. It’s the most important conservation act on the planet, but that doesn’t mean it is positioned to do all the work.”
And, Rutledge said, this decision not to list the bird doesn’t mean the threat of a listing isn’t still out there. The federal government will reevaluate the sage grouse’s standing in five years, and will decide then whether the bird is still doing well enough to avoid a listing. That provides some incentive for western states to continue to work to conserve sage grouse habitat.
“If we don’t do the job right, it will come back around to haunt us,” Rutledge said.
Matt Lee-Ashley, director of the Public Lands division at the Center for American Progress, also praised the decision not to list the bird. So far, the Sage Grouse Initiative has provided certain protections — including easements, invasive removal, and rangeland replanting — on 4.4 million acres of land in the West.
“Today’s decision shows what is possible when national, state and local leaders work together to protect wildlife habitat before a species reaches the brink of extinction,” Lee-Ashley said in an emailed statement. “The conservation plans that the Administration is implementing will help save the fast-disappearing sagebrush expanses in the West and are one of the most significant land protection achievements of the last two decades.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation have also come out in support of the decision not to list the bird. But not all environmental groups are happy about the choice — as the Washington Post notes, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity have both expressed concerns that not enough is being done to protect the sage grouse and its habitat. These concerns may result in lawsuits from groups who want to see more done on the conservation front.
“Greater sage grouse need much more help than these plans provide. You can’t say you want to save these birds and then, in the next breath, recommend more oil and gas development in some of the most important places where they live,” Randi Spivak, public lands director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a June statement.
The oil industry, as well as some western governors and members of Congress, fought hard against an Endangered Species Act listing, as it would limit the land available for drilling. Republicans successfully added a measure to the federal spending bill last year that prohibited funds going towards the bird’s endangered species listing. However, officials said on the call Monday that opposition did not factor in to their decision not to list the bird.
Rutledge said that preserving the bird’s habitat will take significant continued effort, but that he’s proud of the success of the conservation program so far.
“We incorporated information from ranchers, miners, and land developers, and looked at how we need to manage ourselves in order that we have truly long term sustainable relationship with ecosystem,” he said. “This is the way of the future — or at least it better be.”