If you want to harm the sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that roams across 171 million acres in 11 western states, follow the Interior Department’s blueprint. The sage grouse has been in the news a lot lately because in September the Department announced with much fanfare that the bird would not be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Many cheered because the Act’s penalty-based approach, which harms species by creating huge incentives for landowners to rid their property of species and habitat and does enormous economic damage, was avoided.
This good news, however, was a mirage because the Interior Department substituted 15 amended federal land use plans for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The plans, which cover almost 73 million acres of federal land, perpetuate the penalty-based approach that will very likely harm the grouse and western states’ economies.
Over the past decade, successful conservation efforts and favorable weather conditions have resulted in a minimum sage grouse population of almost 425,000 that increased by 0.78 percent annually. Now, this success is in jeopardy due to the 15 amended federal land use plans.
Successful sage grouse conservation, which is based on a cooperative approach led by states, in partnership with landowners, counties, conservation groups, energy companies and universities, has several key elements that illustrate how badly out of step the Interior Department is with the on-the-ground realities of conserving the grouse.
First, a holistic “all lands” focus is necessary, which states have embraced, because sage grouse don’t recognize lines on a map and range widely across private, state and federal lands. This holistic focus also incorporates the two “halves” of the proverbial conservation coin: the entire biophysical environment that consists of all lands; and the social “environment,” otherwise known as people — most notably private landowners, because they own almost all of the keystone moist habitat without which sage grouse cannot survive.
Second, private land is the linchpin for successful sage grouse conservation. The sage grouse is typically thought of as a “federal lands” species because 64 percent of its habitat is federally owned, compared to 31 percent for private lands. But this misses the indispensible role of private lands. A 2014 federal study found that 81 percent of the moist habitat sage grouse depend on during the summer– such as wet meadows, streamsides and ponds — is privately owned. “Wetlands are keystone features that structure [sage grouse] populations,” Patrick Donnelly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and lead investigator of the study, said.
Donnelly and co-investigators found that leks, the sage grouse courtship and breeding sites located in dryer habitats, are mostly on federal lands, with the highest densities being within 1.8 miles of moist habitat. “In other words, the scarcity of wet habitats in sagebrush ecosystems drive the location of grouse breeding sites on uplands: hens choose to mate and nest within a reasonable walk of where they can find late summer foraging for their broods,” according to a federal summary of the study. This has profound implications for sage grouse conservation. “How do you conserve grouse that split their time between private and public lands?” asks Donnelly. “With 81 percent of sparse summer habitat in private ownership, sage grouse success is inextricably linked to ranching and farming in the West.”
Just as private lands are the keystone habitat, private landowners are the keystone people for sage grouse conservation on private and federal lands. Ranchers hold permits to graze livestock on the vast majority of federally owned sage grouse habitat, which makes them ideally positioned to implement conservation measures for grouse on federal lands, as well as their nearby private lands. These thousands of ranchers, and their tens of thousands of family members and employees, are the largest “installed base” of people able to conserve the sage grouse because they live on the land 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, have very detailed knowledge of local biophysical and social environments, are by profession land and resource managers, and possess a deep attachment to the land and its conservation.
Third, successful sage grouse conservation is based heavily on agricultural extension, or extension as it is often called. Extension provides technical assistance and cost sharing to help landowners improve the health and productivity of their lands, and it is the ideal model for the conservation of sensitive and endangered species because it is incentive-based, rather than penalty-based, popular with landowners, and has a decades-long track record of success across the country in a wide variety of applications.
A good example of this success is the Sage Grouse Initiative, started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010. “The Sage Grouse Initiative is a new paradigm for conserving at-risk wildlife that works through voluntary cooperation, incentives, and community support,” according to the Department. By using extension, the Sage Grouse Initiative, as well as states, have conserved at least 7,000,000 acres of sage grouse habitat, including reclaiming more than 950,000 acres by removing encroaching conifers, and working with over 1,100 ranchers to implement grazing plans that benefit sage grouse on 2.5 million acres.
Fourth, successful conservation, whether for the sage grouse or any species, depends on high quality data. And the states have by far the highest quality data on sage grouse.
Fifth, sage grouse conservation needs to be flexible, innovative and site-specific given the enormous geographic and temporal variability across the species’ 171 million-acre range. This is reflected in state-based conservation plans — 11 state-wide plans and 46 local plans — and the approximately 60 local working groups that are crucial for implementing conservation measures across the sage grouse’s range.
Sixth, the sage grouse is in many ways a “conservation-reliant” species, meaning it requires long-term, if not indefinite, conservation because the threats to it and measures to help it take long time periods to address and implement. The sage grouse needs hands-on conservation and a wide variety of people willing to pitch in to help, which, as the past decade has shown, is accomplished through the cooperative, incentive-based approach, coupled with states’ site-specific conservation plans and local working groups.
Seventh, successful sage grouse conservation must be sustainable and long-term due to the long time frames it takes to restore sagebrush habitat and the need to build durable relationships and partnerships. According to Pat Deibert, National Sage Grouse Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sagebrush ecosystems have “long restoration times: 20 to > 100 years depending on species and conditions.” Similarly, successful partnerships and relationships, especially with landowners, take years to develop and must be sustained with trust and goodwill if they are to endure over the long-term.
By contrast, the 15 amended federal land use plans will very likely harm the sage grouse because they work directly against and fail to incorporate the factors necessary for successfully conserving the species. The plans are harmful because they: are penalty-based, instead of incentive-based; myopically focus on federal lands, thereby completely ignoring the keystone private lands; incorporate low quality and even erroneous data; are constructed on “a ‘Just Say No’ philosophy”, according to the State of Utah, which is “built upon the incorrect axiom that, once these restrictions are in place, conservation of the bird will follow”; are essentially fifteen cookie-cutter versions of the same plan constructed around an unsustainable, short-term framework; and are fixated on achieving “certainty” through penalties and regulations that actually decreases certainty by creating mistrust, eroding collaboration, alienating landowners, and breaking partnerships. Sage grouse conservation requires a delicate touch, not the Interior Department’s heavy-handed method.
When landowners and people who work the land are punished for harboring species and habitat, they are unlikely to encourage the conservation of either. “Disgruntled landowners make poor conservationists,” observed David Farrier, professor of law at the University of Wollongong in Australia.
The 15 amended land use plans are creating a lot of disgruntled landowners. For example, the plans are poised to shove livestock off tens of millions of acres of federal land, which will most likely end up harming sage grouse. “The failure of a national strategy to recognize sage-grouse dependence on private lands may result in regulations which ultimately increase sage-grouse habitat loss and fragmentation on private lands if landowners are forced to intensify management actions to offset lost revenues from public land grazing allotments,” according to comments filed by Utah about the state’s amended federal plan.
The Interior Department’s fixation on regulation instead of conservation is causing attitudes to harden, goodwill to evaporate, conflict to supplant cooperation, and landowners to retreat and refuse to become involved in efforts to help the sage grouse. Idaho, Nevada, nine Nevada counties, several mining companies, and the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association have filed lawsuits against the amended plans.
All of this was perfectly avoidable if the Interior Department had not given in to its impulse for penalty-based conservation. The Department’s approach is so unnecessary because, as the Sage Grouse Initiative and state-based efforts have shown, there is an alternate, successful path to sage grouse conservation. It is a sad day when people willing to pitch in and help the sage grouse are discouraged and punished for doing so by their own government.
While the courts may rule in favor of those seeking to overturn the harmful amended federal land use plans, and thereby give states and others breathing room to continue successful sage grouse conservation efforts, this is far from certain. A more durable solution is for Congress to step in and require the 15 amended plans to be withdrawn, completely overhauled and based on the proven successful approach to sage grouse conservation taken by states, landowners and the Sage Grouse Initiative. Until then, it looks like the federal government is going to harm the sage grouse in the name of helping it.