Greater Sage-Grouse. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

At a wildlife refuge just outside Denver, Sally Jewell stepped to the podium and made an announcement with profound consequences for the West: The Greater Sage-Grouse would not need protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

The date was September 22, 2015, and Jewell was the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Sage-grouse numbers had plunged from millions at their historic high to around 400,000 as development and fire whittled the bird’s sagebrush home from 290 million acres to 173 million across 11 states. But a listing under the ESA wasn’t necessary, Jewell told the outdoor audience, because the federal government, states, ranchers, and others had come together around what she called the largest land-conservation effort in U.S. history. 

“It was an incredible day, one of the most memorable and heartwarming in my four years as Secretary of the Interior,” Jewell says today. “It was just a really, really positive experience, and a difficult one to get to.”

A lot has changed since that day, most of it not so positive for sage-grouse. At the time, some environmentalists thought the 2015 agreement wasn’t strong enough to save the birds and argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) should say the species warranted ESA protection, even though Congress in late 2014 passed a spending bill with industry-friendly language that prohibited the agency from listing the species for a year. Others thought the threat of a listing—should lawmakers remove that legislative roadblock—and the limits it would put on development were a powerful incentive to compel competing interests across the sage-grouse states to work together to save the sagebrush ecosystem and its most emblematic inhabitant. Now, on the five year anniversary of the landmark deal, those disagreements still linger. But today, the advocates, government officials, and scientists Audubon spoke with share a deep frustration over what’s happened since. 

At the heart of the deal that Jewell announced were sweeping land-use plans from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service that steered energy development away from areas most important for sage-grouse, put limits on habitat disturbance, and outlined steps to restore sagebrush. States laid out similar plans. Altogether the agreement extended protections to 90 percent of the bird’s remaining breeding habitat—enough to avoid a listing. 

Soon after the Trump administration took office, however, major changes began. The government replaced the 2015 conservation plans with watered-down versions that allowed more disturbance, including drilling closer to the breeding areas, called leks, where sage-grouse return each spring to mate. (A judge has since put those rollbacks on hold, ordering the administration to follow the 2015 plans until a final ruling on whether the 2019 revisions are legal.) It sold oil and gas leases on more than 2.4 million acres of grouse habitat. It canceled a proposal, announced as part of the 2015 deal, that would have put 10 million acres of habitat off-limits for mining. And it walked away from a commitment the FWS made to review the status of sage-grouse after five years. 

Biologists say it’s too soon to say if the conservation plans are working; it takes time for land-use policies to translate into on-the-ground impacts like significant new drilling or development. But in the meantime, worsening wildfires, fueled in part by climate change, have wiped out more than 9 million acres of sagebrush, which can take many decades to recover. And sage-grouse numbers have fallen sharply since 2016, though this past spring saw the counts leveling out or ticking up slightly in states that host the bulk of the bird’s population.

That history provides plenty of ammunition for those who argued that the decision to pursue a compromise rather than an endangered species listing was a mistake. To Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, it was clear at the outset that the 2015 conservation plans weren’t strong enough and would allow sage-grouse numbers to continue their decline. Unlike the strong legal requirements an ESA listing would have brought, the conservation agreement relied on everyone involved to honor the deal, he argues. “And I think what’s happened since has highlighted why that was a bad idea.”

Dan Ashe was director of the FWS in 2015—he sat on the dais with Jewell that September day and signed the decision—and acknowledges that things have gone badly for sage-grouse since then. But he maintains that it was the right choice, one based on years of research, planning, and compromise by parties often at odds with one another. “I have absolutely no regret,” he says. “We let people know what needed to be done to conserve the sage-grouse, and some of it was extraordinarily difficult. And they did it. So you honor that kind of work and commitment.”

Even if Ashe had deemed a listing necessary and Congress had allowed it, some experts question how much good it would have done under the current administration. After all, President Trump’s FWS has changed its rules for implementing the ESA, opening the door for economic considerations, and not just science, to influence listing decisions. Upholding the Act’s protections for sage-grouse likely would have required conservation groups to sue the FWS over weak enforcement of the law, they say; instead, citing the 2015 conservation plans, groups have sued the BLM for selling leases in grouse habitat, and have been largely successful in getting those leases thrown out. 

Furthermore, those experts say, the threat of a listing brought together disparate groups that otherwise couldn’t have agreed on much, and that trust and collaboration will be important for the future of Greater Sage-Grouse conservation. “So am I disappointed in what’s happened? Yes,” says Sarah Greenberger, Audubon’s senior vice president for conservation policy, who previously served as Jewell’s go-to staffer on sage-grouse issues. “Am I convinced that because of what’s happened we should have had an Endangered Species Act listing? No.”

Key to the 2015 deal was a 2020 status review by the FWS that would gauge how the conservation plans were working and guide the future direction of sage-grouse management, according to Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “We needed paper hanging down-range to see where the bullets strike,” he says. But the FWS in 2018 quietly dropped its plans for that review, saying it wasn’t required by law. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which represents states, has taken up that task and aims to finish the review by January. That’s better than nothing, Rutledge says, but he sees it as an abdication of the federal government’s duty and commitment. Underlying the decision not to pursue a listing was a hypothesis, not a guarantee, that the conservation plans were strong enough to save the species, he says. “And the review is absolutely a necessity to determine how well that hypothesis is holding up.”

Whatever that pending review might reveal, and despite past disagreements about the best way to save sage-grouse, many advocates for the species now agree on where things are headed, should a new Congress scrap that legislative language that continues to prevent a listing. “Cutting to the chase, I’ll tell you I think the bird is gonna get listed,” Rutledge says. 

Ashe makes a similar assessment. “If we continue along the path we’re currently on, then I assume it’s not going to be long before the environmental community files a petition with the Fish and Wildlife Service” to list sage-grouse, he says. “And that is shameful, really, that we took that kind of effort across that span of time and that geography, only to be right back there again.”

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