You might have heard a strange sound this last Tuesday morning around 10 a.m. It was a sigh of relief from ranchers, oil and gas workers and miners all over the West at the announcement that the greater sage grouse won't be listed as an endangered species. But you probably also heard the slapping of foreheads from wildlife advocates who say the grouse needs full federal protections if it’s going to survive.
On Tuesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stands jubilant before an applauding audience at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado as she breaks the news.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the greater sage grouse does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act!”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe goes on to echo that celebratory tone, saying the reason sage grouse didn’t need listing was because of a unique conservation plan developed in Wyoming eight years ago. It’s now used by many states around the West, and Ashe says his agency borrowed heavily from it to develop federal protection plans for grouse.
“I have to point out singularly the leadership from the state of Wyoming in designing the Core Area Strategy back in 2008.”
You might be wondering...Core Area what?
The Core Area Strategy is a plan designed in 2008 by then-Governor Dave Freudenthal. He saw the number of sage grouse declining fast in the state and recognized that, if the bird was listed, it could drastically hurt the state’s economy by restricting energy development and grazing in its habitat.
National Audubon Society Vice President Brian Rutledge joined Freudenthal's sage grouse team in those early days. “Dave Freudenthal, the grumpy uncle of all things sagebrush, that helped us get this rolling, should be here to hear about this as well.”
Rutledge was just one of many diverse characters on Freudenthal’s team.
“You've got the oil and gas guy sitting next to the hunter sitting next to the wind person sitting next to Fish and Wildlife,” says Bob Budd, the sage grouse team's chair. Budd has served in the position from the get-go. He says, they brainstormed a plan for protecting the birds that had never been tried before. And at its heart, was this nugget.
“What we've done is we've got about 84% of birds in Wyoming are in Core Areas which affords them considerable protection,” Budd says. In other words, no mining, no grazing, no oil wells without a permit. “That's on 15 million acres of our surface and it's blind to ownership. It’s not just federal lands, or state or private. It's the Habitat, which doesn't see those lines.” And when he says habitat, it’s with a capital H.
And that’s why this plan is so different. Most conservation efforts focus on the animal, not where it lives. But Wyoming’s team used the latest biological sage grouse research to set the rules on a landscape-wide scale.
“There is so much science behind this,” Budd says. “In the state of Wyoming alone, we've spent probably $3 to $5 million on the science. On just the science!”
But wildlife biologist Erik Molvar with WildEarth Guardians disagrees.
“Both the sage grouse final plans and the listing decision are on shaky scientific and legal grounds.”
Molvar says the fed’s decision not to list sage grouse hinged on a narrow view of the data. For instance, that the number of grouse has been increasing over the last two years.
“This is a species that cycles upward and downward,” Molvar says. “But you have to watch the long term trends, and you can't get too caught up in the short-term increases or the short-term decreases.”
Molvar says, actually, since 2010, the number of birds has dropped by more than a quarter. And he says, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife developing the new federal protections for the bird, they didn’t even listen to their own scientists about how much energy development and grazing should be allowed in protected areas.
“In the Wyoming plan, it was a political compromise,” he says. “It was never based on science. And that political compromise then got imported into the federal planning effort.”
Molvar says groups like his might have a solid case for challenging the decision in court and still get the bird listed.
But Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, for one, says the decision is in line with the Endangered Species Act.
“There’s nothing in that Act that says the goal is to list species,” Mead says. “The goal is to make sure we take care of our species, take care of our habitat, so we don’t have to list species.”
Meanwhile, Mead recently announced an initiative to reform the Endangered Species Act to make it easier for states to design their own conservation plans.
And the sage grouse? Listed or not, they just keep dancing.