The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision not to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was perhaps the greatest collaborative conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management—but it didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The years of planning, monitoring, research, and coordination among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and many other stakeholders have also resulted in a new model for conservation.
But rather than celebrate a great achievement, stakeholders at both ends of the special-interest spectrum have proclaimed that listing the bird would have been a better choice. Some in the environmental community have argued that far more should have been done to strengthen protections for the species and believe a listing is still warranted. Meanwhile, some industry proponents and members of Congress have cried out that a listing would have been better than the “draconian” federal overreach they see in the BLM’s amended land-use plans that will impact a majority of the bird’s remaining range.
All of this rhetoric makes for good soundbites and headlines, but would we really be better off? Is it possible that compliance with the proactive conservation measures needed to avoid a listing is actually a harsher reality than a listing itself? Let’s look at the facts about what could have happened under the law.
Under a listing scenario, anyone with plans for federal land designated as sage-grouse habitat would need to comply with all the restrictions and conservations actions under the ESA and consult with the FWS on every future project, extending the timeline. This would apply to businesses, the BLM, the states, and private landowners—even those who have received funding or other resources from a federal agency for a project on their land. Compared to this case-by-case consultation process under a listing, the BLM land-use plans provide a firm set of guidelines to give every industry and community stakeholder the certainty they need to plan for the future.
Buffers and Caps
The BLM plans prescribe buffers and caps for the disturbance to breeding ground areas from human activity and development. One opponent of the plans has promoted the idea that an ESA listing doesn’t come with these buffers and disturbance caps. It’s true that the Act itself doesn’t mandate these restrictions, but immediately following any listing, there would be a designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, which could include even more stringent buffer zones. It’s very doubtful that a post-listing plan would be weaker than the current federal plans.
Obviously, sportsmen would lose the opportunity to hunt sage grouse if they were listed, but the concept of ‘take’ under the ESA also extends to the habitat of the listed species. Under Section 3 of the ESA, ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Aside from hunting them, any activity that would disturb or harass the bird, or alter its habitat in a negative way, would technically be a violation of the ESA and could be subject to penalty under the law. If you don’t believe me, just ask the timber industry what ‘take’ meant to them after the northern spotted owl was listed.
At Home and Afield
With a listing, mandatory enforcement of ESA restrictions extends to all critical habitat, which would include, at the least, everything currently considered priority habitat areas on public land, plus at-risk habitat on private lands. Regardless of ownership, any take of sage grouse or habitat on these lands could be subject to prosecution under the law, with the exception of those already enrolled in conservation agreements with the FWS. This includes applicable programs under the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative or Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), of which there are several million acres already enrolled.
The Best Path Forward
So, does a listing of the greater sage grouse really sound better than implementing the current federal and state plans? I’d say that this rhetoric is really just a last-ditch effort to thwart change and maintain business as usual. Perhaps some of the largest companies and landowners in the region could afford to comply with the ESA, but would this have been the best path forward for the West as a whole? Of course not.
Clearly, and without question, a listing scenario would be far more time-consuming, expensive, and disastrous for the Western economy than implementing the proactive conservation plans that have already been finalized. And that’s not to say that we’re settling for the devil we know. The decision not to list sage grouse required that strong federal plans, complemented by solid state plans and extraordinary voluntary efforts exhibited by private landowners, be developed with assurances that they’d be implemented. And all of this needs to stand up in court.
The next step should be to make sure everyone does what they said they would do to implement their plans. And Congress needs to ensure full funding for implementation of conservation measures in the federal plans and continue supporting the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to benefit these birds. Let’s not get distracted by attempts to dismantle the collaborative efforts that got us where we are today.