Ed Arnett

September 20, 2016

Sage Grouse Still Face Issues One Year After Conservation Milestone

On the anniversary of the historic decision not to list the greater sage grouse for endangered species protection, population numbers are up—but there’s still plenty of work to do

Shortly after first light on opening day, my Labs and I maneuvered through the sagebrush in northwest Colorado searching for sage grouse. As we approached a fenced-off meadow, I noticed there were tags on the wires, markers designed to deter grouse from flying into the fence, which many ranchers and others are using to reduce accidental deaths. There definitely had to be birds in the area.

No sooner had I rested my gun on a wooden post to cross the fence when the sagebrush in front of me exploded with the unmistakable sound of a covey flush, and ten sage grouse flew off safely into the sagebrush sea.

Just four years earlier, I’d been hiking what felt like forever in one of my favorite Wyoming honey holes and no birds were to be found. I’d sat on a hillside wondering, “How did we get to this point?” How could a gamebird once so common, widely distributed, and liberally harvested have become so scarce?

That was in the fall of 2012, when drought continued to plague the West. Grouse numbers were low just about everywhere. In fact, the following spring yielded the second-lowest number of male sage grouse attending their breeding grounds in nearly 50 years. But it was more than just drought affecting sage grouse. More than half of the species range had been lost to development, cropland conversion, fire, or invasive juniper trees that the birds generally don’t like. The threats to habitat were so great and bird numbers so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering whether to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Almost exactly one year ago, the agency decided that the bird was not warranted for listing, and this was heralded as a landmark success for collaborative conservation. On a perfect Saturday morning afield with my dogs, fortunate enough to be hunting sage grouse again, I might agree. But sage grouse are not yet in the clear—here’s why.

The Best Laid Plans

A listing would have dealt a crippling blow to the West and its economy. So, voluntarily, yet with the hammer of the ESA looming overhead, state and federal agencies, private landowners, and numerous stakeholders undertook what will be remembered as perhaps the largest coordinated conservation planning effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management.

Wyoming led the way for the states and dove in head first in 2008, launching its own version of a conservation strategy. Today, all states within the bird’s habitat have some version of a conservation plan for sage grouse. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized early on how vital private landowners are to sagebrush conservation and initiated its own strategy, the Sage Grouse Initiative, in 2010. The NRCS immediately began advising and cutting checks to willing landowners to help improve conditions for sage grouse. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service also began their own historic collaboration and developed conservation measures that would amend more than 100 land-use plans to better conserve and manage the sagebrush ecosystem. Finally, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and the Department of Interior led planning and coordination efforts to combat wildfire and invasive species, like cheatgrass, that threaten sagebrush habitat.

It paid off. On September 22, 2015, the USFWS decided that sage grouse did not require ESA protections. However, that decision was predicated on strong conservation plans, especially on federal public lands, and with assurances that they would be implemented and effective.

Many of the states are implementing their plans. Some like Wyoming have been doing it for several years, but others are barely getting started. Now, one year after finalizing their plans, the BLM just issued guidance to all its field offices on how sage grouse conservation is to be implemented on our public lands.

Hopefully the actual implementation of federal plans doesn’t get as bogged down.

Healthy sagebrush ecosystems support 350 species of plants and animals, including those important to sportsmen, and help support ranching and outdoor recreation economies. Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Onward and Upward

So where are we today? Bird numbers are up across most of the range. According to WAFWA, 2015 saw a dramatic increase in males attending their leks—a 63-percent increase over what was recorded in 2013. Many have touted these numbers as evidence that the plans are working, but conditions have been naturally favorable. In 2014, rain finally found its way back to much of sagebrush country, improving habitat and helping to bridge the gap while conservation plans were developed. But there’s no doubt that ongoing conservation efforts are helping too—and it can only get better with more widespread support for the whole suite of conservation plans.

On the private lands front, NRCS has continued to sign on landowners under the Sage Grouse Initiative, with more than 1,200 participating so far. The Initiative has cleared 457,000 acres of encroaching juniper to open up sagebrush habitat, protected more than 400,000 acres from development, improved rangeland and grazing practices that benefit both grouse and livestock on nearly 2.8 million acres, and marked nearly 630 miles of fences to help grouse avoid collisions with deadly wires.

While hunting has never been identified as a major threat to sage grouse, sportsmen sacrificed opportunity in most states either with outright closures or curtailed seasons and smaller bag limits. But we also contributed to the solution with hundreds of millions dollars from hunting licenses, fees, and Pittman-Robertson funding dedicated by the states to sage grouse research and conservation.

Don’t Mess With Success

But not everyone agrees with all of the conservation efforts that are planned or ongoing. The strength of the federal land-use plans has been called into question in no less than six pending lawsuits in which the plans are being called either too onerous or not rigorous enough.

Unfortunately, some in Congress continue to meddle with success by trying to force the federal agencies to use only state-developed plans. The problem is that some state plans cannot stand alone to address the threats to sage grouse, and many are based on voluntary efforts with weak assurances they will be fully implemented. Lawmakers who would rather see state plans adopted across the bird’s range are attaching legislation to the only things moving through Congress—our national defense spending bill and other appropriations bills that keep the government funded.

There should be no language in any future legislation that seeks to delay, defund, or otherwise undo the federal sage grouse conservation plans on millions of acres of America’s public lands, and 105 business leaders agree. These retailers, outfitters, and gear manufacturers, who rely on sportsmen having access to quality fish and wildlife habitat, are urging lawmakers to let sage grouse conservation happen. Read the letter here.

The True Test of Conservation

It’s still far too early to claim victory for sage grouse, and quite honestly, I think we dodged the proverbial bullet. Without rain over the past three years, we may have seen a different scenario play out last fall. The documented increases in bird numbers only reflect a short-term uptick; the long-term trend is still one of gradual decline.

The true test of conservation is yet to come.

If oil prices perhaps break $60 per barrel or if we experience another drought in sagebrush country, then we’ll get to see how well the conservation plans really work. All game bird populations go through cycles, and sage grouse numbers will always fluctuate. But what we do next will determine if the species can emerge from particularly tough times.

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS

The Next Chapter

As for my sage grouse hunt last weekend, the story ends like this: I saw exactly where the covey put down, and soon afterward my dogs and I were on the birds. Once again, I heard the telltale sound of flapping wings, and two shots later we had finished our quest for the iconic bird of the West.

How will the story end for sage grouse across their range? That chapter is still being written.

We must stay on track with implementing the conservation plans—all of them—that were so crucial to the not-warranted decision made one year ago. And we must be wary of political meddling. Congress should ensure that there is adequate funding to implement conservation plans and support the states and private landowners. A new presidential administration will take over soon, and no matter who wins, they too must stay the course for sagebrush conservation.

We have little time to spare, as drought will once again hit the American West, as it always has, and pressures to extract resources from the land will continue to compete with our conservation goals.

Sure, as sportsmen, we want to continue to have opportunities to pursue these birds, trek through brushy landscapes with our dogs, and hear the flush of flapping wings. But, as Americans, we should be proud of a collaborative process that’s working—one that represents our scientists, land managers, private landowners, elected officials, and businesses working together—and see it through to a happy ending for the sagebrush sea.

2 Responses to “Sage Grouse Still Face Issues One Year After Conservation Milestone”

  1. dAVID J.iNGRAHAM

    TO PROPERLY BRING ANY ENDANGERED SPECIES IS TO FARM OR RANCH THE SPECIES IN A CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT WHERE EXTENSIVE BREEDING CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED AND NURTURING OF THE LIFE OF THE SPECIES, TOBE SAFE FROM ALL PREDATORS, HUNGER AND DISEASES . WHEN POPULATIONS INCREASE TO TWICE THE NEED FOR BREEDING STOCK, THE EXCESS THEN CAN BE REINTRODUCED INTO THEIR MORE COMMON HABITAT. THIS WOULD IN A SHORTER TIME BRING THE SPECIES BACK TO NORMAL POPULATION.

    • Ed Arnett
      Ed Arnett

      Thanks for your comment Mr. Ingraham. Captive breeding without a doubt played a critical role in saving and moving toward recovery of species like the black-footed ferret and California condor. But sage grouse are a different beast and situation altogether. First, they are not yet endangered and in fact were not listed under the ESA, so captive breeding is not warranted. More importantly, captive breeding in my professional opinion is an absolute last resort when all other efforts have failed. The conservation plans set forth by the federal agencies and states – coupled with voluntary efforts on private lands – should, if implemented, provide the habitat conditions needed to maintain and enhance populations across the range of sage grouse. If we plan carefully and balance multiple uses with conservation, we never should have to resort to captive breeding and release programs in wildlife management. Thanks again for your comment…Ed Arnett, Sr Scientist, TRCP

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Kristyn Brady

July 18, 2016

The Fisheries Crisis Just Down the Road from the Largest Sportfishing Trade Show on Earth

While innovation was on display in Orlando, devastation wasn’t far from anyone’s thoughts

Last week’s ICAST show brought more fishing industry brands, buyers, and broadcasters to Orlando than ever before. But in a time of great prosperity for our sports nationwide, there’s a water quality crisis of epic proportions in Florida.

This is why, on day two of our Saltwater Media Summit at ICAST, the TRCP brought together the scientists, researchers, conservation leaders, businesses, and fishermen who are stepping up to figure out what Florida needs to do both short and long term to solve water pollution on the coast lines and restore the Everglades. As our Marine Fisheries Director Chris Macaluso said in welcoming the crowd of over 80 reporters, partners, and interested show attendees, it is an emotional, complex issue, and we all know that we want to do something to protect Florida’s waters wildlife and people. The trick is figuring out how to throw our weight behind the same plan to sway lawmakers and save Florida’s coast and the Everglades.

Costa’s Al Perkinson, vice president of marketing for the influential sunglasses-maker and lifestyle brand, set the stage for the issue by debuting an emotional video about the impact of development on Florida’s fisheries and the Everglades. The centerpiece of Costa’s #fixFlorida campaign, the video is narrated by angler, guide, and TV host Flip Pallot.

Dr. Steven Davis, a wetlands biologist with the Everglades Foundation, led off with a breakdown of exactly what’s causing this crisis. He explained that the areas in and adjacent to the Everglades and Florida Keys generate nearly $2 billion from saltwater angling, but much of that economic activity is being threatened by the mishandling of freshwater from the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Water that once moved south through the Everglades is now being moved via man-made canals and locks to the east, down the St. Lucie River, and to the west through the Caloosahatchee River. This is leading to fish kills, algae blooms, and thousands of lost fishing opportunities on both the west and east coastlines of Florida.

While those brackish and saltwater areas are being inundated with unnatural freshwater flows, Florida Bay, on the southern end of the Everglades, isn’t getting enough freshwater, and unnaturally high salinity levels are killing seagrass beds and other vital habitat while causing additional algae blooms. Poor water management issues are being compounded by the presence of excessive nutrients traced back to aging septic systems and farm runoff from cattle ranches and sugar cane fields.

Without long-term action to address these issues and restore habitat, many of South Florida’s most popular fishing areas face a bleak future. But Davis pointed out that two comprehensive restoration plans do exist: One is incrementally being shepherded by the state and one still requires Congressional approval to get off the ground.

Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“There is a comprehensive plan already under way, with a lot of components closer to completion and others ready to come online soon,” said Kellie Ralston, the Florida fishery policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “But the plan is looking at 30 years—that’s too long. And the 50-50 split between federal and state agencies tends to slow the process down. We need to fast-track these projects and work collectively as a group. With a conservation plan waiting to be authorized by Congress, that’s something we can focus on.”

And the grassroots support is certainly there—Captains for Clean Water helped introduce the #NowOrNeverglades declaration of support for conservation and funding just a week before ICAST, and Capt. Daniel Andrews says they already have more than 13,000 signers and 200 organizations backing it. “We formed Captains for Clean Water because a lot of people were angry, but didn’t know what they could do,” said Andrews, who also showed a video that the group produced with hook manufacturer Mustad. “I grew up in South Florida, fished Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee, and I’d seen the destruction firsthand. This is degrading the river that made me want to become a fishing guide. That’s why we want to get companies and individuals together and be part of a solution.”

There’s no research left to be done, added Dr. Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. “It’s a statement you’ll rarely hear a scientist make, but we don’t need more data,” said Adams. “When it comes to fixing Florida’s water problem, we have actionable knowledge. It’s a political and economic issue at this point.” He explained that time is of the essence, because a lot of the affected habitat is already at a deficit: 50 percent of the area’s mangroves and 9 million acres of wetlands are already gone. “The assembly line that creates healthy habitat is already weakened,” Adams said, adding that restoration can’t begin until the water quality, flows, and storage issues are addressed. “It’s like giving a lung transplant to someone who refuses to quit smoking. If we’re going to preserve Florida as the sportfishing capital of the world, we need to fix the hydrology, reduce contaminated inputs, and then talk about restoring habitat.”

Here’s what needs to happen now:

  • Plans to restore water flows and improve habitat—known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, or CERP—need to be adequately funded and implemented, as promised.
  • The Central Everglades Planning Project needs to be fast-tracked.
  • Conservation dollars approved by Florida voters need to be used to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee, which has already been identified, to create reservoirs for storing and cleaning water.
  • We need to develop comprehensive strategies to reduce the amount of nutrients in the freshwater entering the estuaries—this includes curbing sewerage, septic leakage, and excessive fertilizer use.
  • Natural freshwater flows, taking into account the time of year and how much water is flowing, need to be restored.
  • Marshes must be restored to filter nutrients from the freshwater that is entering estuaries.

With the momentum of ICAST behind us, the TRCP is joining this coalition of engaged and enthusiastic sportsmen working to improve the Lake Okeechobee Basin. We recently hired our first-ever Florida field representative, Ed Tamson, to roll up his sleeves and work alongside the sportfishing partners, conservation leaders, grassroots advocates, and state and federal agencies trying to restore Florida’s fisheries. We welcome our new colleague Ed, and the challenge of collaborating with many different stakeholders to improve the water quality on the east and west coasts of Florida and restore the Everglades to its former glory.

June 15, 2016

A Whirlwind Tour of a Complex Landscape in the Prairie Pothole Region

Journalists get up close and personal with working lands and at-risk wetlands in North Dakota

After a week in legendary North Dakota—where every day I was up before dawn and in bed long after the northern summer sun set—I am sunburned, windswept, and my body feels like it was hit by a truck.

No this wasn’t a marathon hunt week—wrong season—but an exercise in living like a reporter on the road. I was there with 18 journalists and a handful of partners* to learn about what’s happening to wildlife habitat in the state. We were all hoping to see firsthand the impacts that rapid advances in ethanol, oil, gas, and agricultural production are having on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).

The PPR is home to a unique ecosystem, created over tens of thousands of years as glaciers retreated across the northern part of the continent. The glaciers left behind rocky soils and millions of shallow, seasonal wetlands known as potholes. These potholes, and the grasslands surrounding them, are prime waterfowl breeding habitat, lending the PPR its nickname: North America’s Duck Factory. Over half of the continent’s waterfowl are born in those grassland-wetland complexes.

The grassland-wetland complex on the left of the road is protected for conservation, while the land on the right has been converted for crops. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Among the highlights of the trip was an outing to locate duck nests and candle the eggs, to see how well developed the ducklings inside are, estimate hatch dates, and determine nest success. The site we visited boasted about 460 nests, and it was a unique thrill to flush one hen after another from her nest among old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings. The hens will return to the nests despite our handling of the eggs, and eventually these mother ducks will march their ducklings up to three miles to a wetland to swim, feed, and possibly grow into one of the ducks you’ll hunt this fall.

Fresh down feathers line a nest of duck eggs. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

There’s a lot of other wildlife in the region, especially some of our favorite fish and game—walleyes, wild turkeys, pheasants, sharptail grouse, whitetail deer. We even heard rumors of moose in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, all of these critters are at risk because grasslands and wetlands are being converted for agriculture and other uses at a rapid pace.

A bird’s-eye view of the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

The potholes and grasslands of the PPR were once naturally maintained by grazing herds of millions of bison. The bison are mostly gone from this landscape, but cattle have long been their surrogates, keeping the PPR relatively healthy and supporting prairie habitat.

Cattle grazing at sunset on the Black Leg Ranch. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

However, myriad factors are causing cattle to disappear from the land, nearly as abruptly as their native predecessors did. Newly developed seed types and farm equipment have allowed corn and soy crops to move north from the central plains, as those plants can now grow in the shorter northern seasons. Ethanol production and international markets have fostered that migration, as has wetland drainage, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing flooding and overflowing lakes, literally submerging communities around Devil’s Lake. And the discovery of natural gas in the Bakken Formation has led to hundreds of wetlands being made into well pads. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it’s hard for cattlemen to compete with these technological advances, and yet they are one of the last remaining forces helping the Duck Factory to persist.

A well pad in the Bakken. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

While the TRCP laments the loss of cattle from the landscape, we do not oppose energy development or technological innovation. We just want it to be done responsibly, in balance with other demands on our public and private lands, and to ensure that sportsmen and wildlife don’t get the short end of the stick.

Most folks in North Dakota, I think, feel the same way. Dozens of times during the trip we heard that sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are the heroes of conservation, for instance through our Duck Stamp purchases and backing of the Conservation Reserve Program. Many of the industry representatives we spoke with also hunt and fish and they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same, so they strive for a conservation-minded approach to development. And just this week, North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to preserve Depression-era rules, which would limit corporate farm ownership in the state, thereby perpetuating a family farm structure that many believe to be far better for conservation than the alternative.

Summer storm clouds roll in near Jamestown, N.D. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

But the PPR is still suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Congress has passed laws through the Farm Bill which should limit grassland and wetland conversion for agriculture, but those laws are unevenly enforced—and even when they are, violators may not be penalized. When it comes to other types of development, there are currently no state or federal laws designed to protect this landscape.

The TRCP wants America’s farmers and ranchers to be successful and profitable, but not at the expense of sportsmen’s access and opportunity. This visit has reinforced our resolve to help develop policies that balance the needs of production agriculture and private landowners with the needs of sportsmen, fish, and wildlife, and that make conservation a financially-viable part of the farm economy.

The sun sets on a wetland near Devil’s Lake. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

*Many thanks to Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for helping to organizing the Prairie Pothole Institute.

Kristyn Brady

May 18, 2016

House Passes Dangerous Sage-Grouse Rider in Defense Bill

 

State and federal progress to keep iconic Western gamebird off endangered species list could be undone by Congress

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act. Contained in this ‘must-pass’ legislation that funds America’s military readiness was language that would force the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to abandon successful sage-grouse conservation plans. These federal plans resulted from years of collaboration and millions of taxpayer dollars that successfully kept the sage-grouse off the Endangered Species Act list.

“Sportsmen across the country are very disappointed with the House’s action to play politics with our national defense by inserting unrelated and detrimental language about sage-grouse conservation into the bill,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “If language contained in the House bill were to become law, it would throw into question decades of statutory precedent, scores of environmental laws, and the subsequent legal decisions around those laws. This legislation is a Trojan horse for transferring public lands to the states and stands to have lasting repercussions beyond curtailing conservation efforts in sagebrush country.”

Opponents of the 2015 conservation victory would rather see state-developed plans implemented instead. The shift in management, elimination of judicial review, and long-term delay of any future listing decision erodes the implementation of bedrock conservation statutes—such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. While many of the 11 western state plans are good, some do not fully address threats to sage-grouse and need to be complimented by federal plans.

“Success for the greater sage-grouse was achieved in 2015 through the combination of strong conservation plans on federal public lands, coupled with state conservation plans and voluntary efforts from private landowners,” said Steve Williams, President of the Wildlife Management Institute. “Future success depends heavily on immediate and consistent implementation of all these combined efforts. Congressional efforts to eliminate federal plans would negate effectiveness of all efforts and result in a waste of both state and federal funds expended to date.”

“We are disappointed to see this effort by the House to snatch defeat from the jaws of a victory that has already been achieved,” said Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever. “The eleven western states, federal agencies, and private landowners must continue with their unprecedented efforts to conserve and manage sage-grouse. Congress simply needs to fund implementation of these combined efforts, especially private landowner efforts to conserve sage-grouse and 350 other sagebrush-dependent species.”

Sportsmen organizations continue to communicate to lawmakers that the best thing they can do for sage-grouse is ensure that adequate funding goes toward implementation of federal plans, that necessary resources go to the states, and that private lands conservation continues. If implemented, these plans would be a windfall for habitat of species like mule deer and pronghorns, not to mention a boon to sportsmen. Undoing those conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing—bad news for just about everyone.

The Senate is expected to consider their version of the NDAA—which currently does not include the detrimental sage-grouse provisions – sometime next week. “This issue has no link to military readiness and it’s simply playing politics to suggest otherwise,” continued Fosburgh. “Our community looks forward to working with the Senate to ensure that these provisions to undermine sage-grouse conservation are kept out of their version of the legislation.”

Ed Arnett

November 10, 2015

Are the BLM’s Sage Grouse Conservation Plans Really Worse Than an ESA Listing?

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.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

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.

Project Management

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.

‘Take’ Note

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.

Image courtesy of Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

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.

Take action now.

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