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ESA changes could help protect sage grouse on private land

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Sarah Gilman | May 20, 2014 12:10 PM

In an increasingly subdivided and trailblazed West, southeastern Oregon’s Harney County is a place that can still make you feel small. From the empty blacktop two-lane highways 78 and 20, broad grasslands rise to sagebrush-studded mesas and hills that crest and break to the blue horizons like the landlocked waves of a parched sea. Drive-fast-with-your-windows-down country; 0.7-people-and-ten-times-as-many-cows-per-square-mile country; and, as it happens, excellent greater sage grouse country.

Sage grouse
A male greater sage grouse struts his stuff in Harney County, Oregon.

The chicken-sized ground-nesting bird, best known for elaborate mating dances and stubborn loyalty to ancestral mating grounds called leks, occupies massive swaths of 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces. And it has lately been figuratively looming over the region like a gigantic, balloon-chested, strutting Godzilla: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a court-ordered decision whether to formally protect it under the Endangered Species Act by 2015, potentially ushering in what many believe would be economically devastating land-use restrictions. Grouse numbers have declined by 90 percent, and habitat by about half, over the last century. In 2010, Fish and Wildlife found that an ESA listing was warranted, but that other species more urgently needed protection. That bought time for federal and state agencies, ranchers, conservationists, energy companies and others to mount massive recovery efforts in hopes of staving off the need for listing altogether.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Harney County’s Soil and Water Conservation District will finalize one such project -- a collaboratively-developed private land conservation plan called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, or CCAA, that will cover Harney’s million-plus acres of private land. Landowners who sign on agree not to fragment habitat with subdivision or development and will apply conservation measures tailored to their properties, such as removing encroaching junipers that crowd the birds out, tagging fences to reduce lethal collisions, and altering grazing to improve forage and nest cover. In exchange, they’ll avoid further regulation should the bird be listed.

More than 30 landowners have already committed, covering 250,000 acres. Oregon's seven other sage grouse counties will likely follow Harney’s model, meaning all the state's habitat on private land would be covered by a CCAA before the listing decision, according to Fish and Wildlife’s Oregon State Supervisor Paul Henson, though what impact that has depends on how many people sign up.

“Private landowners often view endangered species on their property as a risk. We want them to be seen as an asset,” Henson says. That’s a major advantage of voluntary agreements, since they foster the trust and buy-in necessary to get proactive habitat improvements on private lands, where federal authorities otherwise don’t have much control beyond telling landowners what not to do.

With approximately 40 percent of occupied sage grouse habitat on private lands, the Obama administration has put a lot of muscle behind this approach in the lead up to the listing decision, from CCAAs developed in partnership with Fish and Wildlife to the massive Sage Grouse Initiative mounted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has put more than $350 million in Farm Bill and partner-supplied funds into conservation measures on some 953 ranches, covering 3.8 million acres across 11 states, since 2010.

And earlier this month, the administration rolled out a court-ordered revision of its critical habitat rules and policies for endangered species that appears to bolster its collaborative approach. The critical habitat designation is supposed to protect landscapes and features essential to a species’ conservation, and thus comes with restrictions on how the land covered can be used. Among other things, the new draft, open for public comment through July 11, clarifies the terms under which non-federal lands covered by conservation agreements such as Harney County’s CCAA can be excluded from critical habitat designations, essentially adding transparency and consistency to things Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service are already doing.

That’s important, says Defenders of Wildlife Director of Endangered Species Conservation Ya-Wei Li, because while “critical habitat rarely has a regulatory impact on private land (it only affects projects that require a federal permit or federal funding), the perception is that it’s this big monster and ‘I can’t put a swimming pool in my back yard’ (if my land is designated). This policy is more about giving people peace of mind.” That will help a lot in the West, says Henson, “especially for species where we need private and state landowners to commit. I think it will result in more conservation on nonfederal lands.”

Indeed, just as dodging an ESA listing is a powerful motivator for conservation, so too does the specter of unavoidable ESA restrictions seem to have a chilling effect on private land conservation efforts. According to an NRCS report to the Western Governor’s Association, landowner participation in the Sage Grouse Initiative declined precipitously on the Nevada-California border after Fish and Wildlife proposed listing a distinct population of grouse there as threatened. "While several factors likely influence landowner participation,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller wrote, “13 producers who had submitted early applications (for SGI conservation funding) in fiscal year 2014 … withdrew their applications shortly after the listing announcement.”

Li worries that the critical habitat proposal makes it too easy for the feds to exclude land covered by agreements developed in partnership with Fish and Wildlife or the Fisheries Service (CCAAs, as well as other arrangements called Safe Harbor Agreements and Habitat Conservation Plans). Some of those plans “are horrible,” Li says, pointing to a recent CCAA for prairie chickens, which covers oil and gas development on the bird’s range in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Because that particular CCAA allows temporary mitigations for “permanent impacts,” he argues, it isn’t nearly as protective as a critical habitat designation would be. He also nods to the controversy over a CCAA covering dunes sagebrush lizard habitat in Texas. Fish and Wildlife used the agreement as justification not to list the lizard as endangered, inspiring lawsuit from Defenders and the Center for Biological Diversity, who charge that the CCAA doesn't provide the agency with enough information on conservation measures for it to judge whether they’d be effective or not.

The resolution of the case will be interesting, Li says, because it “raises novel legal questions. How much can the Service rely on an agreement that has no track record? If you can do enough conservation to prevent (a species) from being listed, that’s success. But there needs to be some real level of confidence that those activities are actually going to produce benefits.”

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman. Image courtesy of Flickr user Kathy & Sam.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
May 20, 2014 02:17 PM
With the dunes sagebrush lizard, part of the problem was who was on the other side of the table, namely, the state of Texas.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
May 20, 2014 04:33 PM
We need a balanced approach.Species decline, sage grouse included, like climate change, is directly related to man, and his impact on the planet, his large and drastic changes to eco-systems. To much impact, take, whatever you want to call it. For the sage grouse to survive that means less impact. They call it the landscape bird, i think all our native prairie grouse are. When they decline,which all prairie grouse are. The canary is saying we are working our prairies to hard,and it is not in good health. What is a balanced approach.Some degree of development,grazing,and farming. But obviously not to the degree we are doing now.If a majority of the grouse live on public land, changing policy there should be easier, then private land owners management minds. That usually involves money incentives.There should and can be some responsible drilling for energy, but not on all lands.Recently Mr. Bruce Babbitt called for more lands to be protected with the antiquities act ,and wildlife refuge act. Which can be done without the gridlock of Congress. He even mentioned we need a Sage grouse wildlife refuge, A perfect area is a large track of BLM land south west of Glasgow Montana. That could be designated for Sage grouse, and other declining prairie species.The Prairie is the most imperiled ecosystem affected by man in North America,only 1% protected. In need of some greater level of protection, can't we altruistically even if just a few percent, designate a few areas to be left alone, wild ,where humans just watch and appreciate nature, no development, drilling,sod busting, farming, spraying chemicals, building roads,putting up power lines, barb-wire fences, if just not for a distant reminder of how the prairie use to and can be . Or does our short-sighted greed require us to have it all?
David Diekmann
David Diekmann
May 29, 2014 11:26 AM
@Kirk: While I agree with you that we can all be a bit smarter about how we utilize our natural resources, I believe your perspective is a bit blurred. If you want organic/non-gmo crops, you cannot produce as much product per acre. Less production means less food and less profit for the grower. You want a smaller drilling footprint which implies you want a larger wind/solar/biofuels imprint and the necessary power lines to move the energy, but you don't want those power lines to run through eco-systems that should be closed. You can't have it all! If you want to close off large swaths of public and private land to any human touch, then you have to be open to more nuclear, coal, and frack gas energy generation using existing power line rights of way. You have to agree to increased crop production on existing acreage using seeds with accelerated genetic modifications. (Remember that more productivity per acre using less water and chemicals is a good thing be it for food or bio-fuels). Babbitt's proposal to usurp (not protect) public land from US citizens is nothing if not criminal. Where does that stop? Why not claim the Pacific Ocean next?

The concept of creating a species-specific wildlife refuge is great for waterfowl, but wildlife doesn't honor a man-made boundary or fence. These birds will simply walk under or fly across whatever line we put on a map. That's throwing good land and money at a bad idea. Your motive is good but the method will fail, sorry.

Because these birds (and others in that prairie chicken category) are so broadly distributed, and because of the potentially huge impact to public and private land interests, stakeholders have smartly been at the table for several years working on agreements like those noted in the article. A heavy-handed effort by the Feds will only foster anger and ultimately do more harm than good for these birds. Everyone wants to see overly healthy populations of most all critters (wolves and mountain lions perhaps being exceptions), but if those come at the cost of a landowner's ability earn a living or the public's ability to access public land, then better that a management plan by consensus is reached than a Fed mandate, no?
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Jun 03, 2014 04:27 PM
     No. In the case of the sage grouse (and many others) -- no.
     I have read through a few of these habitat conservation plans. They contain impressive amounts of data but no requirements. It's all voluntary. The overriding intent of the plans is to avoid the implementation of the ESA. For the southwestern willow flycatcher in Colorado, landowners were required to do nothing at all in the HCP. However, ranching is the main culprit in the demise of the bird. . . . same for the grouse.
     Given the variety and magnitude of agricultural subsidies, I would hardly call it "earning" a living. This is especially so for the public land ranchers. It's not their land, but they treat it as such.
     The production of food in the arid western states is so minimal that it appears to be a mere side effect of a popular lifestyle, which is zealously protected by the stakeholders. It would be considerably less without the material assistance of the government in providing inexpensive water, land & vegetation manipulations, wildlife eradications, subsidized insurance, disaster relief, etc.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 03, 2014 05:17 PM
David, some people say organic does not necessarily mean less yield. But if it does, so be it, if it is sustainable, and doesn't pollute us the environment and cost species extinction. What's the point, if the current massive, intensive, chemical, monoculture agricultural system ,is not sustainable, pollutes us, and kills off most of the prairie species.We can easily feed Americans organically nutritionally and sustainably. A huge percentage of our agricultural, goes to feed the rest of the planet. In Montana 80% of the wheat is exported to other countries. Is it our responsibility to feed the planet when some countries choose to have 20 kids and do not have the resources to feed them? Biological controls are going to happen, we choose now, or sometime in the future by nature.A Sage grouse refuge would not be species specific leaving a large piece of the North American Prairie wild and alone would benefit many diverse species trying to replicate what it once was.A refuge is just that, a place where species can thrive naturally and possibly even repopulate other less Prestine habitats in the future. Keeping many species from disappearing and going extinct. If we cannot set aside a small percentage of the Great Plains to be left alone, just how greedy are we as a species?
Marion Dickinson
Marion Dickinson
Jun 04, 2014 07:13 AM
The elephant in the room when it comes to protection of the grouse is the protection of predators that prey on the grouse. Various hawks and eagles take a heavy toll, especially when artificial nests are set up in an area close to leks. Coyotes and foxes take a heavy toll. The problem is once man starts "fixing" one thing, it throws other things out of kilter. Single species management creates a lot of jobs for a lot of advocates and researchers, but does not help wildlife overall.

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