As Sage-Grouse Decision Looms, West Holds Its Breath

U.S. Fish and Wildlife will decide whether to list the bird by the end of September.

Humans have long spelled trouble for the Greater Sage-Grouse. When John James Audubon described “the cock of the plains” almost 200 years ago, he remarked that it “often runs under the horses of travellers when disturbed.” In the decades since, the iconic Western bird’s numbers have plummeted, largely due to habitat disturbance. But in recent years, people across the West have taken a keen interest in the plight of the chicken-sized bird because of the looming threat of a listing under the Endangered Species Act—an enormously controversial decision that would block off tens of millions of acres from development, exploration, or use. 

By the end of September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, facing a court-ordered deadline, will decide whether to list the Greater Sage-Grouse under the ESA.

The grouse, whose numbers have dropped to less than 500,000 birds today from as many as 16 million historically, has been under consideration since 2010, due to loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat across its 165-million-acre range, which spans 11 states. The possibility of a listing has spurred a resounding response. Over the last half-decade, federal, state, local, and private stakeholders have taken unprecedented conservation measures to try to stave off a listing. There have also been a torrent of Congressional efforts, backed by industry, to stop or slow the government from declaring the bird threatened or endangered.

"It’s no secret that there’s very heavy overlap between the bird’s range and places that are really good for oil and gas development, places that are really good for wind development, places that are already existing private lands with working ranches on them," says Audubon’s VP of Government Relations Mike Daulton. "So the question is, given that reality of where the bird needs to live and what’s going on in the American West, what can we do to find a path forward?" 

Most people, aside from some green groups, will be hugely relieved if the bird is not listed. But that won’t mean the work is over; it’ll merely signal that the enormous conservation efforts are on the right track. There will still be a long way to go to protect the grouse and its habitat in order to ensure the species isn’t listed in the future.

As the September 30 deadline draws near, here’s a look at the situation. 

Meet the Sage-Grouse

First, a bit about the bird—anyone who’s been following this story closely knows that the sage-grouse is, well, a bit of an odd bird. “Chicken-like” comes up a lot, though while the sage-grouse is chicken-like in size, it is not, in fact, chicken-like in flavor or texture (reportedly). NPR recently summed up the sage-grouse as “about as adaptable as the dodo bird, which is to say it's not very adaptable at all.” Manmade structures don’t bode well for the ancient birds; they can’t see fences, which lead to deadly collisions, and power lines offer convenient perches for birds of prey and ravens, which make meals of young grouse. U.S. News and World Report called it “positively prehistoric,” while High Country News went with “big mutant chickens.”  In truth, the male sage-grouse does have quite the combination of spikey tail feathers and bulbous, yellow sacs on its chest (which are used during courtship displays)—it’s a “peculiar and uniquely American bird,” as All Things Considered put it. On the other hand, the female grouse, with her svelte build and salt-and-pepper feathers, is actually quite nice-looking.

The males also perform this delightful mating dance: 

Greater Sage-Grouse are inextricably tied to sagebrush; the fragrant bushes provide nesting habitat in the summer, and the toxin-laden leaves are the birds’ sole food source in the winter (protecting the grouse safeguards habitat for more than 350 species of plants and animals that are also dependent on the sagebrush ecosystem). 

The males’ “booms,” (made with those delightful chest sacs), can travel more than a mile, attracting females to leks, or mating grounds. Much sage-grouse habitat is sought after for oil and gas fields, renewable energy farms, mines, and ranches, both existing and potential—hence ranchers and industry’s interest in the fate of the bird.

The Final Federal Push

The federal government manages two-thirds of the bird’s 165-million-acre habitat. In late May the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service released their last, best hope for keeping the bird off the list: 14 land management plans spanning 10 Western states. The plans will barely have time to be implemented by the time USFWS’ decision comes down (they first must go through a 60-day Governor’s Consistency Review Period and a simultaneous 30-day comment period) in September, but the effort put forth will likely factor into the final decision.  

Among other things, the plans will create no-drill buffer zones around the grouse’s breeding grounds, or leks, to protect the habitat the birds need to reproduce. Of the 60 BLM acres of sage-grouse habitat managed by the BLM, 2 million will be involved in the creation of these buffer zones. The plans also allocate money for fire prevention and habitat restoration, all in the interest of protecting the leks. (Besides development, the sage grouse’s two biggest enemies are wildfires and the encroachment of invasive species, like fast-spreading piñon and juniper trees, along with cheatgrass—which actually boosts the chance of wildfires)

States’ Solutions

Five percent of sage-grouse habitat is on state lands, and each state has a tailored plan explaining how it will protect the bird. Wyoming was the first to develop a grouse management plan in 2008, which incorporated a core area approach—a buffer around critical habitat that still allowed for development outside those key areas. Since then, all 11 states with sage-grouse have implemented similar plans, with Nevada, and North Dakota, and Montana the last to release their strategies last year.

Landowners Take Action

About one-third of the grouse’s habitat lies on private property, which means protecting the bird falls in large part to those trying to make a living off this land, people like rancher Bryan Masini. Sixty-two-year-old Masini, whose family has worked the land in the same Nevada watershed for six generations, has become an evangelist for this kind of private-public partnership the Interior Department thinks could help save the bird. Launched in 2010 by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, the Sage Grouse Initiative is an organized effort to conserve the bird’s habitat while coexisting with industry. To date, the program has seen 4.4 million acres be set aside by 1,129 ranchers in 11 states, according to a report released in February 2015. The initiative has also poured $424.5 million into land protection and rehabilitation over the past five years, and recently committed another $211 million.  

The Masini family, like other ranchers, set aside part of their land as conservation easements, meaning that they promise not to develop the land—ever. Easements provide “long-term permanent protection of that critical habitat,” explains NRCS Chief Jason Weller. In return, they receive compensation in the form of both tax breaks and cash payments. (How much they receive varies by acreage, location and land type—but one critical bonus that applies across the board is that once land is offered up as an easement, landowners cannot be asked to take additional measures to protect the bird later, even if it’s listed.) In addition to easements, landowners earn rewards for such actions as improving their fences, restoring wetlands, or removing invasive plants.

"It's inextricable —you can't have the grouse without public and private lands," Weller says. The bird spends its winter months in the higher, government-owned elevations, but descends into the privately owned meadows, where there is water for their hatchlings, in the spring and summer. Protecting both is the key to success.

Conservation Conundrum

Conservationists are at odds when it comes to whether the bird should be listed. Some believe the best thing for the bird is to be declared threatened or endangered—regardless of the work that’s been done in recent years. Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, points to a recent study that showed a 56-percent decline in sage-grouse numbers between 2007 and 2013 (another study found that the birds rebounded in 2013 and 2014). He believes that the 14 BLM management plans might slow the species decline, but isn’t convinced they’ll be enough to officially reestablish the populations. “The new conservation measures shouldn’t be judged by how much they change land management status quo,” he says, “but rather they should be judged on whether they will actually reverse the trend toward extinction.”

Daulton says Audubon would support a listing if the Greater Sage-Grouse’s population dips so low that listing is the only option. But he says there’s still time before that point, and he’s optimistic about collaborative efforts already underway. “This strategy is about replacing gridlock with hope,” Daulton says. “It’s about replacing the specter of extinction with the promise of collaboration.”

Collaboration is key to saving the sage-grouse—and the ESA is key to collaboration, says Daulton. Right now, the law is both the carrot and the stick: it’s the incentive for industries and private landowners to assist with conservation efforts (e.g. the money offered in the form of easements), and it’s the restrictions they’d reckon with if they don’t (e.g. being forbidden from operating on wide swaths of the land).

Take away that threat and you’re “taking away all of the incentive to collaborative conservation," Daulton says. "Unravel all of the conservation—all of the preventative medicine—and you're even more likely to end up in the emergency room."

Congressional Crackdown

In the crucial last few months before a decision must be made on the Greater Sage-Grouse the ESA is experiencing what may be the most serious assaults in its history. In a single day in May, for instance, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to consider no less than eight pieces of legislation designed to weaken the ESA.

Among them: “The Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act,” a controversial bill introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), co-sponsored by Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV). A foil to the plans released by USFWS and the BLM in May, it would instead allow each state to come up with its own plan to manage threats to bird while “protecting their local economies.” It would also prevent any listing activity at all for six years.

That’s six years scientists say the Greater-Sage Grouse doesn’t have. That much time would constitute “irreparable harm,” says Clait Braun, a habitat management consultant and sage-grouse expert.

Conservationists and their allies hope it won’t come to that—and so far, it hasn’t. Senator Barbara Boxer, for one, has promised “hand-to-hand combat” on the Senate floor if the series of bills, which she characterizes as “a back-door repeal of the Endangered Species Act,” gets that far.

Peering at Tea Leaves

In 2013, FWS proposed listing the bi-state Greater Sage-grouse, a small, genetically distinct population that straddles the California/Nevada border. This past April, the agency announced the bi-state population does not require protections under the federal government. USFWS’s decision not to list wasn’t because the populations’ numbers had increased; in fact, over the last 10 years, research shows that the population has either stayed the same, or decreased. Rather, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell cited “the extraordinary efforts” to address threats such as loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat through a 2012 action plan crafted by scientists, landowners, and conservation groups. And the effort has secured the funding it needs to carry out the science-driven projects outlined by the plan, says Mary Grim of USFWS. In addition to the $30 million already spent on the effort, the government has pledged $45 million dollars over the next 15 years to protect the bi-state’s habitat.

Now, the bi-state decision is entirely separate from the region-wide determination due this month. Yet when announcing the bi-state determination Secretary Jewell did, intriguingly, say, “The collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development.” We’ll soon find out if that was a hint at what’s to come.

With 11 states involved and millions of acres of private land to incorporate, it will be a much bigger feat to guarantee the Greater Sage-Grouse the same level of cooperation that was able to keep the bi-state off the Endangered Species List. For proof, just ask Masini, who owns land in both the bi-state’s habitat, where he saw collaboration work, and in the Greater Sage-Grouse’s habitat.

“It’s a little different here, and a little more difficult because of the vastness of the region,” Masini says of the Greater Sage-Grouse’s habitat. “It’s going to come down to how many dollars become available and how many ranchers participate. They tend to be extremely independent here.”