posted in: Outdoor Economy

August 2, 2017

Here Are the CliffsNotes on Why Everyone’s Still Talking About Sage Grouse

From signs of decline decades ago to a definitive moment for sagebrush country—catch up and learn what’s at stake for sage grouse and the sportsmen who depend on them.

I had hiked for what seemed like hours and endless miles through the central Wyoming sagebrush, working my dogs in every place I’d ever found sage grouse in years past. I was a bit dumbfounded as these areas usually produced birds in fairly short order, but it seemed that all those honey holes were dry this year. I wondered what happened, as I kneeled down and poured some water into a bowl for the dogs and then took a sip myself.

All of a sudden, my chocolate lab, Deke, perked up his ears, began wagging his tail, and briskly walked toward a line of sage that we had yet to push through about 20 yards away. Apparently, the wind had shifted into our faces, and he was finally on some birds. No sooner had I grabbed my 20-gauge when a half-dozen sage grouse erupted from the brush. I dropped one, fired again and missed, and then hit a second bird with my last round. Just like that, we were done for the day—and the season, as it turned out. There were no birds the next day, no matter how far we wandered.

That hunt took place in 2012, just as I had started working in the complex world of policy and management of the greater sage grouse with the TRCP. It was also during a crippling drought, the likes of which the West hadn’t experienced for several years.

I wasn’t the only hunter to get skunked, either. The second-lowest number of male sage grouse since 1965 were counted on their breeding grounds that year, following decades of sagebrush being degraded or lost to urbanization, crop conversion, energy development, fire, and invasive weeds. In total, the West had lost nearly 50 percent of its sagebrush country by the new millennium, and grouse numbers followed suit, declining about one percent each year on average since the mid-1960s.

A lot has happened since then. Though state agency biologists put forth a range-wide conservation strategy in 2006, it took a petition to list the species—and ultimately a court order mandating that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine whether the species warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act by September 2015—to send most states and federal agencies into action.

Wyoming led the way in this effort, bringing multiple interest groups together to craft a balanced approach to conservation and knowing full well that a listing would cripple the state and much of the West. As the September 2015 deadline approached, 11 Western states had all developed some sort of conservation plan for greater sage grouse, and the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service finalized their own plans for conservation on public lands just before the USFWS’s final decision was announced.

Private landowners jumped in, too. The Natural Resource Conservation Service, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, created the Sage Grouse Initiative to help landowners get technical advice on tailoring their operations to help grouse and their rangeland and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into habitat improvements, like removing invasive trees to improve grass and forb (sage grouse food) production. It was mutually beneficial for ranchers and the iconic dancing birds—as one rancher from Oregon has famously said, “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”

Sage grouse aren’t the only game species that rely on the sagebrush habitat. Image courtesy of Nick Dobric.

When this historic collaborative work paid off, and the Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse did not warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act, a collective sigh of relief could be felt across the West.

I’ve been a professional wildlife biologist for almost 30 years, and for me and most of my colleagues it is clear that the work to benefit sage grouse over the last several years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, has stated that the unprecedented and extraordinary collaboration we’ve seen sets forth a model for the future of conservation in America.

But the work has only just begun. One thing we all need to keep in mind is that the decision to keep sage grouse off a threatened or endangered species list was predicated on the promise of implementing both federal and state conservation plans simultaneously and without interruption, all while conservation efforts on private lands continue. No single effort can stand alone to deliver the necessary conservation benefits or regulatory certainty to avoid a future listing.

But major amendments and lengthy disruptions could drastically alter the course for habitat conservation and undo years of hard work—years that sage grouse don’t have to waste.

There’s simply no denying that long-term conservation measures will benefit everyone in the end.

So why do we think it’s so important for sportsmen and women to understand all of this, even after the not warranted decision for sage grouse was issued? We depend on public lands for quality habitat that allows fish and wildlife populations to thrive. And we know that sagebrush provides habitat for more than 350 species of plants and wildlife, including many beyond sage grouse, like pronghorns, wild trout, mule deer, and elk.

Major disruptions in #sagegrouse plans could drastically alter the course for habitat #conservation. Click To Tweet

These iconic species define the Western landscape and our days afield. Meanwhile, the extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities in sagebrush country help drive spending in our local communities, supporting the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy and more than 7.5 million jobs. These pursuits mean big business, and the places where we are free to hunt and fish define us as Americans.

This is why we need to keep this historic collaborative conservation effort moving forward, while continuing to work with the states and all stakeholders on thoughtful improvements. It is critical to our outdoor heritage, economy, and Western way of life.

12 Responses to “Here Are the CliffsNotes on Why Everyone’s Still Talking About Sage Grouse”

  1. Leon Fisher

    Dear Secretary Zinke: I am 74 years old and a retired wildlife biologist. The collaborative effort between the states, government officials and the public are an historic conservation milestone. I strongly urge you to allow the “plan” to move forward without altering it, thus jeapordizing this effort as well as the species and all of the folks that put so much into this effort! This could be a defining moment (one way or the other) in your legacy. Please make it a good one for wildlife and the people! Sincerely, L. Fisher

  2. Dear Secretary Zinkes: As an outdoorsmen, conservationist, hunter, sporting artist and landowner I implore you to continue the historic Sage Grouse Initiative collaborative efforts now in place. As you well know it’s not just about sage grouse, it’s about all the wildlife that inhabit sagebrush country and the positive economic impacts of recreation / ranching on the West. Federal and State governments working together with private landowners is the key to the Sage Grouse Initiative. It is working, please keep the momentum moving forward! Good days afield, Ross B. Young

  3. I have only once seen Sage Grouse in the State of Washington. Ironically the birds were on the firing range in Yakima where non-military hunters are permitted to hunt. Whatever habitat existed at one time that supported these birds in Washington has gone to agricultural demands on the land. Where we can save these birds we should, let’s keep up the fight.

  4. Travis Roberts

    The collaborative effort between the states, government officials and the public are an historic conservation milestone. I strongly urge you to allow the “plan” to move forward without altering it, thus jeapordizing this effort as well as the species and all of the folks that put so much into this effort! This could be a defining moment (one way or the other) in your legacy. Please make it a good one for wildlife and the people!
    Travis Roberts

  5. Dear Secretary Zinke

    I urge you to allow the collaborative effort to improve habitat for Sage Grouse and other prairie species to continue. Habitat is always the engine that drives the train for thriving wildlife. Artificial supports like releasing pen raised birds and animals are seldom effective. Improving the habitat is the “Field.” If you build it (habitat) they (birds and wildlife) will come.

  6. Paul Skees

    We ravaged America over 100 years ago. We have come together to build it back by conserving wild places and wild things. It’s our obligation to continue what we started. America’s legacy is at stake. Let this plan move forward.

  7. Dear Mr. Secretary. There are many areas in conservation where thoughtful people can and have used our land and left it in good and sometimes better condition for different species of concern. Then there are specific species and habitats that we either don’t know enough about, or we do know enough to understand that a conservative approach to their care demands a hands off approach. This is scalpel work, not meat cleaver. The Sage Grouse management plan has been a powerful example of public private partnership worthy of your support and nurturing as you make face the immense challenges of balancing use and conservation in the dry West.

  8. Dear Secretary Zinke–I live in Central Montana, on the edge of the sagebrush steppe, and have spent decades writing about the fascinating eastern half of your home state. Although I am also an avid hunter, I stopped shooting sage grouse years ago because of my concern about their future. The recent collaborative effort among multiple stakeholders resulting in a plan that kept the sage grouse from being listed was a remarkable example of voluntary cooperation among diverse parties. I have friends in the ranch community who made adaptations on their rangeland in accordance with this plan and actually saw livestock production improve as a result. Someday I hope to hunt sage grouse again myself. Please let the initiative stand.

  9. Scott Schaeffer

    Dear Mr. Zink: I live in the Midwest, I have never laid eyes on sage grouse, I would like to someday! Please rise above the anti-science based decision making process of this current administration! Whether it be the sage grouse, the bobwhite quail, sharptail grouse or the ring-necked pheasant, we need holistic, landscape-level habitat restoration, and conservation. We are looking to you to steer this ship, and deliver! Get 40 million acres placed back into the CRP cap, and make good on a resource friendly farmbill. Wildlife is a economic engine, it’s time to “start your engine”!!!’

  10. Garhart Stephenson

    For the most part the initiative has been a very good thing. Of course, it has coincided with the return of wet weather cycles in Wyoming when the birds typically see a boom in population. This is painting a rosier picture for the effort than is reality. I have spent my life with these birds and watched population cycles come and go with the droughts. During the most recent drought period, talk of threatened status arose. Of course, decades of data proved it unnecessary as a wide sweeping policy. Protecting the habitat we have is necessary but without extreme measures. One thing that has me deeply disturbed is the “removal of invasives” in my area. What is being poisoned/ eradicated in my home area is cheatgrass. The issue is that doing so completely sacrifices another valuable game bird, the chukar partridge. The response form a local Wyoming Game and Fish Dept. biologist is “They’re non-native”. Lousy attitude for a noble bird we hunt here for 4 to 4 1/2 months. We are losing one species in the name of another, with no proof there will be worthwhile gains. Ironically, we are repeating the sins of the past that wiped out sage grouse habitat. We have gone too far.

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July 27, 2017

Why This Sportsmen’s Bill is About More Than Just Wolves

Let’s not allow the strongest legislative package of conservation priorities in years to be overshadowed by controversy

Yesterday, for the second time in as many years, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to advance a package of conservation provisions that have long been a priority for the sportsmen’s community. The legislation would reauthorize programs to benefit fish, waterfowl, wetlands, big game habitat, and sportsmen’s access across the country.

Since 2012, sportsmen have been trying to get these provisions across the legislative finish line, and each time, we’ve failed. Good legislation has been mired in generally unrelated partisanship and political games, with good ideas held hostage by process and bickering.

Where a few years ago sportsmen-advocates in Washington looked to our Sportsmen’s Act lobbying with fairly enthusiastic promise, I will admit that it has been hard to get excited about yet another run in the 115th Congress, especially as the window of opportunity has seemed even narrower than usual. But Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) have assembled the “HELP for Wildlife Act” (S.1514), which has breathed new life into this effort.

We called it the strongest package of sportsmen’s priorities in years, because right from the outset, it deals with meaningful conservation measures for fish and wildlife populations, habitat, and access. The bill would reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to enable strong partnerships and funding for conservation. The bill also includes what would be the first ever statutory authorization for the National Fish Habitat Conservation Act, a program that funds on-the-ground fish habitat restoration projects across the country.

It also addresses the needs of the Chesapeake Bay Program, which provides grants to the six states in the bay watershed, not only improving water quality on the main-stem Chesapeake (and my own home waters) but also the health of small streams and rivers throughout the watershed.

Free from the controversial and distracting provisions of past iterations, this is a legislative package unfettered by poison pills, and sportsmen should be eager to see it move to the Senate floor. But, in these days of often blistering partisan warfare, it seems nothing is completely free of controversy. In the case of HELP, provisions meant to delist the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes from Endangered Species Act protection seems to be overshadowing the very real conservation benefits of the bill.

Photo by Herbert Lange c/o Wisconsin DNR/Flickr

Just the mention of endangered species usually sends folks running for cover, but in this case, the TRCP supports the gray wolf provision as grounded in sound science. This is an idea whose time has come. Generally we don’t support legislative meddling in species-level management, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that it is time for wolf management to be returned to the state fish and wildlife agencies, and we have full confidence in USFWS science and the state agencies’ ability to manage the wolf population.

This package is about way more than wolves. Unfortunately, the bipartisan passage of this bill out of the EPW Committee this week—which should be celebrated—is just the start of a long process before the package can be presented to President Trump for his signature. There is currently no companion version of this legislation in the House of Representatives and no clear path for consideration by the full Senate.

So sportsmen simply must engage; hunters and anglers must make their voices heard now. In the absence of that outreach, sportsmen, and our legislative priorities, might once again wind up on the cutting room floor at the end of the 115th Congress next December.

It has happened before, and it can happen again.

How the Elliott State Forest Public Land Sale Fizzled for Good

Here’s what we can learn from the four-year battle for these public lands and our outdoor recreation access

Earlier this month, Oregon legislators passed measures that will finally keep the Elliott State Forest in public hands and off the auction block. This ends a long drawn-out battle that highlights the major differences between America’s public lands and state-managed lands in the West.

Though we applaud the final outcome—achieved with the vocal support of Oregon sportsmen and women—it’s important that we look back on this saga to learn what went wrong and how we might be able to avoid this sort of costly risk to our public lands in the future.

How the Elliott Became the Poster Child for the Sale of Public Lands

Established in 1930, Oregon’s Elliott State Forest is considered one of the best recreation areas on the Oregon coast. Consisting of 82,500 acres of state land that provides unmatched experiences for local hunters, anglers, and wildlife enthusiasts, the Elliott is made up primarily of lands belonging to the state’s Common School Fund, which was created in 1859—the same year Oregon officially became a state.

Common School Fund lands are used to generate revenue to benefit Oregon’s public education system, mostly through sustainable timber harvest. So when a place like the Elliott isn’t generating a profit, selling the land outright is one way to salvage the value that remains. Just a few individuals can make this decision for state-held lands, versus federal lands that can only be sold by an act of Congress. This is a very important distinction between state-owned lands and national public lands.

And this is exactly what we saw happening with the Elliott beginning in 2013. As logging restrictions and environmental lawsuits strictly limited timber operations, ownership of the forest became a financial drain—rather than a source of income—for the state. Oregon was forced to consider selling the lands to relieve this burden.

Image courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr. Header image courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry/Tony Andersen/Flickr.
A Slippery Slope

In 2014, the state sold three parcels totaling 1,453 acres and signaled its intent to sell the forest outright two years later. Fair market value was estimated at just $220.8 million, sparking interest from buyers, and earlier this year the state land board approved a potential sale.

Immediately, sportsmen’s groups combined forces and began working to keep the Elliott State Forest public. The pressure from hunters, anglers, hikers, and American families was effective: The state land board voted in May to pursue a plan to retain public ownership of the Elliott.

This month the Oregon Legislature reached a compromise and approved $100 million in state bonding to compensate the Common School Fund for the loss of revenue as a result of preserving conservation and public access to the Elliott. Simultaneously, the state Senate passed a bill to fund and coordinate the transfer of certain trust lands to be managed for the benefit of the Common School Fund.

Finally, an outcome that sportsmen and women can be proud of was reached: Public access and outdoor recreation will continue to thrive, while fiduciary obligations to the Common School Fund will be fulfilled.

Image courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr.
The Final Hurdles

This success sets a clear and positive example: Public lands are important to all Oregonians, and when sportsmen and women unite, we win.

There are some final steps to ensure that the Elliott remains public. The acres that would be purchased to support the school fund need to be clarified and the conservation plans for important habitat need to be fully developed. But the future is much brighter for public lands and our sporting traditions here in Oregon.

Oregon's Elliott will remain public. Here’s what we can learn from the 4-year battle for #publiclands Click To Tweet

While it’s no longer the poster child for sale or disposal of public lands by a cash-strapped state, the Elliott saga is still a cautionary tale. America’s public lands are a critical part of our national identity and are managed under a multiple-use mandate to prioritize recreation, habitat, grazing, and development—a much different approach than management of state lands in the West.

Learn how the movement to transfer our national public lands to the states is actually dying out in Western state legislatures as new threats emerge in D.C.

July 20, 2017

Sportsmen Remain Locked Out of Thousands of Acres of Public Land in New Mexico

How Secretary Zinke can help unlock the nation’s only designated wilderness with no public access

Designated in 2009, the 16,030-acre Sabinoso Wilderness, located in San Miguel County, is a remote area in the northeastern portion of New Mexico that is home to a number of game species such as mule deer, Barbary sheep, New Mexico dahl sheep, Rio Grande turkeys, and migratory waterfowl. Yet, right now, the only way sportsmen and others can enjoy the high, narrow mesas and cliff-lined canyons is with permission from a private landowner.

The Sabinoso Wilderness is the only designated wilderness in the country that does not have any public access. We’re just one step away from correcting that, and local hunters are itching to get in this season. Here’s what has to happen.

A Gift for Public Access

After more than four years of intensive work by conservation organizations and local sportsmen and women, along with Senators Heinrich and Udall, a private foundation now owns the key to public access—the 4,176-acre Rimrock Rose Ranch.

The ranch lies between the nearest county road and the publicly owned wilderness and cost more than $3 million. The purchase was made with the understanding that the property would be conveyed from the foundation to the American people and the BLM, so that the parcel would eventually become public land, thereby connecting the county road and the Sabinoso. In other words, the private foundation’s generosity would open up more than 4,000 acres of private land as well as 16,000+ acres of landlocked public lands that have belonged to all Americans for nearly a decade.

This and the cover image courtesy of Joel Gay.
Cutting Through the Red Tape

The BLM has completed the evaluation of the wilderness-eligible parcels and is ready to accept the donation. A 60-day congressional review period mandated by the Wilderness Act concluded on March 20, 2017 with no action taken by Congress. So we’ve passed these first hurdles.

The only thing holding up the transaction is Secretary Zinke’s unwillingness to approve it.

The New Mexico State Office of the BLM had completed its realty process (all good there), but then Secretary Zinke instructed the BLM to pause work on the transaction.

Local sportsmen’s organizations have pushed hard for the BLM to complete its work in time to open the area for this fall’s hunting season. Any further delays in the process could endanger that timeline and leave hunters locked out of the area for yet another season. The only holdup now resides with Secretary Zinke’s instructions to pause the process, an order that only the Secretary can rescind, though presumably quite easily.

And if another recent Secretarial order is any indication, Zinke is all for unlocking checkerboard public lands.

In fact, sportsmen across the West are applauding Secretarial Order 3347, in which Secretary Zinke has directed the BLM to identify, inventory, and find all possible ways to provide access onto our public lands that are now landlocked and inaccessible. Here in New Mexico, Zinke has a golden opportunity to put the good intentions of S.O. 3347 into action, making public access to the Sabinoso a shining example of landlocked lands being made available to the public.

Image courtesy of the BLM/Flickr.
What Happens Next?

Access to the newly created Sabinoso Wilderness will be an integral part of economic growth locally and regionally, and local leaders have joined the TRCP in asking Secretary Zinke to help see this through.

Stage is set for @Interior to open access to 20,000 acres of landlocked #publiclands; will they? Click To Tweet

The Sabinoso Public Access Plan we are supporting is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to open spectacular hunting and outdoor recreation opportunities to the public for the very first time. Sportsmen, local residents, and small business owners are eagerly awaiting the day that the public can visit this unique landscape.

By completing the final step expeditiously, Secretary Zinke can ensure that this fall will be the Sabinoso’s first hunting season with guaranteed public access, something he has publicly advocated in the past. Now is his chance to stand behind his words and open more than 20,000 total acres of public land to the American people.

July 13, 2017

Solutions for the Biggest Pain Points of Frustrated Anglers

Modern federal fisheries management should recognize the value of recreational fishing to local communities and conservation in America—here are three ways to do that

Frustration among anglers is at an all-time high. Overall, recreational and commercial fishing are still being treated the same, despite being fundamentally different activities that require different management approaches. Federal fisheries managers are also employing inherently imprecise data on recreational harvest in a system that requires great precision. Combined, you have a situation where it’s common for anglers to lose access and lack trust in federal fisheries managers.

But there are policy solutions, and the sportfishing, advocacy, and conservation communities continue to work with federal and state policymakers to improve saltwater recreational fishing management and ensure there are healthy stocks of forage fish and gamefish in America’s coastal waters. Here’s what we want to see.

Modernizing Federal Fisheries Management
ICAST 2017, TRCP Media Summit


Currently, federal fisheries managers set catch limits for recreational and commercial fishing using quotas to harvest stocks up to maximum sustainable yield. While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum biomass is desired, it is not an effective management tool for recreational fishing, where abundance, size, and opportunity are more important. We get out on the water to catch fish for food or catch and release fish as a way to enjoy the outdoors—our motivations and tactics are different than the commercial sector.

In the past year, the recreational fishing community has explored the technical aspects of incorporating more management techniques appropriate for recreational fisheries into federal approaches, and our groups worked with decision makers to develop pieces of legislation to implement these ideas. “The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017” was introduced in the House of Representatives in April and in the Senate this week.

The bill requires an examination of allocations in mixed-use fisheries, allows for the use of alternative management approaches for recreational fishing, and requires federal managers to work more closely with state fisheries agencies and research facilities to incorporate data on fish stocks and improve angler data collection on harvest and effort.

A Short-Term Fix for Red Snapper


In May, state fisheries management agencies joined Gulf-region elected officials and the Department of Commerce to address the historically embattled red snapper season for federal waters, set for just three days in 2017. Gulf-state fisheries agencies traded red snapper fishing days in state waters for a 39-day red snapper season on weekends through Labor Day 2017. A high level of cooperation and coordination was needed to have all five states agree to this deal with the federal government, and the extended season has calmed anger and frustration among Gulf anglers.

However, it is a temporary fix. A long-term solution will require more cooperation, improved data collection, and continued efforts from Congress to address federal laws that manage recreational fishing based on the values of commercial fishing.

Managing Menhaden

Forage fish like menhaden serve as the foundation of the food chain, supporting sportfish such as striped bass, bluefish, red drum, speckled trout, and other species enjoyed by recreational anglers. Improving forage fish management and the conservation of these stocks is critical to the health of these economically important game fish.

Currently, the Atlantic menhaden fishery is managed as a single species, but this approach fails to account for the little fish’s critical role as an essential food source. In November 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will vote on whether to transition menhaden to an ecosystem-based model, which would account for predator-prey relationships and bring forage fisheries management into the 21st century. The TRCP, ASA, and CCA are working with sportsmen and conservation groups to support this landmark decision, and sportsmen and women will have a chance to weigh in this fall.

Want to be the first to know about your opportunity to take action? Sign up for the Roosevelt Report.

Cover photo and above courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.



Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

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