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Ashley Tuggle, M.E.M.

A male Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

A male Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

At stake: 31,000 jobs and up to $5.6 billion in annual economic activity.

First it was the Northern Spotted Owl in 1990, then it was the Delta Smelt in 1993, now the next great Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing controversy is underway over a squat, chicken-like bird called the Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).

The sage-grouse is dependent on the sagebrush steppe ecosystem to survive with subsistence and ceremonial importance to Native American tribes in the western United States. Their diet consists primarily of soft sagebrush leaves (up to 98% during the winter months) and they rely on large, open flats surrounded by sagebrush called leks for space to perform their curious and iconic courtship displays. Birds tend to use the same leks and associated nesting sites year after year. As a result of this reliance on lek-sites, sage-grouse are particularly vulnerable to habitat alterations and disturbances to lekking habitat. Population trends have historically mirrored the percent cover and areal extent of sagebrush habitat. With alterations to the rangelands of the west though the years, Sage-grouse have been reduced to 56% of their historic range. Conservation efforts in the last 15-20 years have slowed the rate of population decline, but many populations of grouse are still shrinking, all the same.

A map of the historic and current ranges for Greater Sage-grouse . Photo courtesy of The Wildlife News

A map of the historic and current ranges for Greater Sage-grouse.     Photo courtesy of The Wildlife News.

Impacts of Sage-grouse Listing
With a range stretching across approximately 165 million acresin 11 states, the economic impact of a potential ESA listing for the sage-grouse is staggering. Plans calling for the strictest conservation measures under the ESA could result in the loss of up to 31,000 jobs, up to $5.6 billion in annual economic activity, and more than $262 million in lost state and local revenue per year in the 11 states with sage-grouse habitat according to a widely cited 2013 study by the Law Offices of Lowell E. Baier. This presents a two-fold challenge for states, which typically fund conservation efforts on public lands through user fees. First, it reduces major revenues currently generated from energy development and ranching in the region. Second, with much of the land in question closed to public access if the sage-grouse is listed, generating the fees to fund conservation will likely be difficult.

Historical Sage-grouse Rulings
This issue has been brewing since 2005 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declined to list the Greater Sage-grouse as threatened. Several environmental groups sued and the FWS reevaluated the available evidence. In 2010, the sage-grouse was once more passed over for listing in favor of higher-priority species. However, the FWS noted that listing was “warranted, but precluded.” Again, environmental groups rallied and in 2011, the FWS agreed to reconsider a listing for the species by September 30, 2015. With the potential ESA listing less than a year away, an unlikely coalition of developers, ranchers, state regulatory agencies, and even some environmental groups have banded together to develop voluntary, incentive-based strategies to conserve sage-grouse habitat and protect this iconic species.

A male Greater Sage-grouse displaying for a female courtesy. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

A male Greater Sage-grouse displaying for a female. She will choose her mate based on courtship displays. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar invited states to develop sage-grouse conservation plans in 2009 in the belief that successful landscape level planning and management will require effective coordination between the state and local governments as well as private landowners. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has made efforts toward developing a more comprehensive and consistent sage-grouse management strategy to ensure a landscape level approach to the conservation issue. Current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has continued this initiative and noted that all states must show good faith efforts to find an effective conservation strategy and if one does not, it may jeopardize the survival of the sage-grouse.

However, there are concerns that special interest groups will use their lobbying power to weaken sage-grouse protection in certain states if they’re allowed to develop their own protection regulations.

Even though governors and congressional leaders of affected states have attempted to sway the Interior Department, state land and wildlife managers almost uniformly believe that the FWS will rule in favor of listing the sage-grouse as threatened. The issue has grown to the point that Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress have introduced legislation that would specifically block listing for the sage-grouse under the ESA.

Status Today
June 2014 paints a more cooperative and less contentious view of the sage-grouse issue. The BLM has adopted Wyoming’s plan to conserve sage-grouse habitat, signaling that the sage-grouse may not be listed. Secretary Jewell’s recent tour of the western states and her praise for the voluntary efforts of ranchers in the Wyoming region indicate that a shift may have occurred. However, the ultimate decision for listing still lies with the FWS.

A map of Wyoming with the current sage-grouse distribution in gray and Core Population Areas in green. Photo courtesy of WyoFile.

A map of Wyoming with the current sage-grouse distribution                      in gray and Core Population Areas in green.                  Photo courtesy of WyoFile.

Whether it’s federal ESA listing or state conservation programs, Wyoming’s plan has become the model for the region and for public-private partnerships. Adopted in June 2014, the Plan updates the Lander Resource Management Plan, a 27-year-old document covering 3.5 million acres of Wyoming. The provisions limit new development activities within designated Core Population Areas for sage-grouse unless project proponents can prove that there will be no detriment to sage-grouse populations. This can be done on a project-specific basis or through compliance with general and industry-specific land use stipulations geared toward restricting surface disturbance (particularly around leks) and surface occupancy during sensitive times of the year.

However, some environmentalists are concerned that the Plan lacks real teeth. Land use restrictions only apply to activities of, or authorized by, state agencies and not to private actions not requiring state agency approval. In other words, the conservation plan requirements are voluntary on private lands. Further raising concerns is a recent deal between Wyoming’s governor and Chesapeake Energy that allows continued horizontal drilling for oil wells in a Core Population Area of Converse County, Wyoming. In return, Chesapeake Energy has paid the state to improve conservation efforts in other Core Population Areas. The closed-door nature of the deal has embittered many looking to the state to stand firm on their conservation plan to prevent ESA listing.

A female Greater Sage-grouse with her chosen male. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

Two males fight for control over the center of the lek.           Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

No one across the 11-state range for the birds, public and private interests alike, wants another Northern Spotted Owl. The listing of this species remains controversial with industry analysts and conservationists at odds over theeconomic impact, though no one can deny that the northwest timber industry has declined in recent decades. However, if voluntary efforts are not seen as effective within the next 11 months, energy interests (renewable and fossil-fuel, alike), ranchers, and state wildlife management officials will need to prepare for sweeping restrictions as the FWS works to prevent the extinction of the Greater Sage-grouse and the destruction and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat.

About the Author:

Ashley Tuggle

Ashley Tuggle is one of Great Ecology’s Ecologists specializing in biological surveys, geospatial and statistical analysis, and wetland ecology. She holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Management, with a Certificate of Geospatial Analysis from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.