In a closely watched decision with far-reaching impact across the American West, the Department of the Interior announced Tuesday that the Greater Sage-Grouse does not currently warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Citing an “epic collaboration” by dozens of partners across 11 western states, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell expressed optimism for the grouse and its signature ecosystem—largely because of unprecedented conservation work in recent years to restore the grouse's habitat.
“This has been an extraordinary effort on a scale we've never seen before,” said Jewell, who made the announcement in a video on Twitter. “These collective efforts add up to a bright future for the sage grouse.”
The breadth and scope of the collaborative effort may be unprecedented in the history of bird conservation, said George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy.
“This gives me hope that momentum can continue, more sagebrush habitat can be saved, that new science will be continuously employed for better outcomes, and that this work can become a model of cooperative conservation,” Fenwick said. “Real success will require constant monitoring and evaluation—and willingness to make needed changes where we are falling short.”
The grouse's future now depends on 98 new conservation plans, also announced Tuesday, aimed at conserving Greater Sage-Grouse habitat and supporting sustainable economic development on portions of public lands across 10 western states.
Those plans, formally adopted by the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service, call for a variety of changes. They limit future energy development in the most important grouse habitats, provide requirements for sustainable land use, and prioritize new efforts to prevent losses of sagebrush to wildfire.
The plans affect more than 67 million acres of public lands in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, including 12 million acres where strict limits on oil and gas drilling will be enforced.
For the past six years, American Bird Conservancy has advocated for this type of regional approach, said Steve Holmer, ABC's senior policy advisor. As the strategy took shape, ABC staff worked to make sure the federal plans followed the best available science to be effective in reversing the grouse's decline.
In the past year, ABC supporters have also sent thousands of letters to Congress in support of the management plans, and to oppose an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent the implementation of the plans.
Now that the plans are formally in place, they need time to take effect, Holmer said. “We're optimistic. However, we'll want to see regular reviews of the species' population trend to learn if the current long-term decline is reversed. If not, the listing issue may have to be revisited in the future.”
In the 1800s, as many as 16 million Greater Sage-Grouse lived in the wide-open sagebrush of the West. That number has since plummeted to about 210,000 birds today. More than half of the bird's sagebrush habitat has been lost to development.
This decline, along with the prospect of an ESA listing, galvanized a collective effort on the part of states, industries, scientists, and federal agencies to put in place a variety of conservation measures. The Sage Grouse Initiative, for instance, has addressed the challenge of conservation on privately owned lands.
Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the program's many partner organizations—including the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, the Nature Conservancy, and the Mule Deer Foundation—have engaged private landowners in extensive grouse conservation. Since 2010, SGI has enrolled more than 1,100 ranchers in its programs, resulting in the conservation of more than 4.4 million acres of grouse habitat across 11 states. In August, federal officials announced the program would extend through 2018, with a goal of reaching 8 million acres of private lands.
The sage grouse isn't the only beneficiary of this collaborative work. More than 350 other species of wildlife depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including the Sage Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer's Sparrow, which have been designated as species of conservation concern. This week the Sage Grouse Initiative unveiled a new guide for land managers—developed by ABC and several partner organizations—that will help managers enhance sagebrush habitat for a variety of birds, not just grouse.
This week's announcements make clear that Greater Sage-Grouse has been a catalyst for sweeping change across the West. As the new plans take effect, ABC will monitor their progress and stay vigilant on behalf of the emblematic bird (and many others) that depends on the West's vast stretches of sagebrush to survive.