No ESA for sage grouse


You might be all in a tizzy about whether Avatar or Hurt Locker will win the big Oscar on Sunday. But a lot of folks in the Interior West -- and enviro wonks from all over -- were focused this week on a much bigger announcement: Will the greater sage grouse get federal protection under the Endangered Species Act or not?

The answer? No. At least not yet.

In a March 5 press conference, Interior Secretary Salazar said that the bird -- whose numbers have declined by 90 percent over the past century -- will not get federal protection. That's in spite of the fact that the feds believe the bird needs protection. Extensive scientific research over the past few years, said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife Tom Strickland, has demonstrated that the grouse "does warrant protection. But we are proposing to not list, because of the need to address higher priority species." 

In other words: The sage grouse needs protection, we just don't have time to deal with it right now. Instead, the grouse will hold the status of "candidate" species. Strickland said that will allow his agency to devote more resources to protection, but did not list specifics. Sage grouse hunting will be allowed to continue. And Salazar repeatedly said that this will allow both energy production -- renewable and fossil fuels -- to keep rushing along while also allowing the sage grouse to "thrive."

The decision leaves the bird's protection to state and voluntary efforts. 

During the conference, official heaped oodles of praise on Wyoming's sage grouse protection plan. The plan designated sage grouse "core areas," zones in which a lot of grouse hang out, or breed, or have their leks. The core areas get extra protection -- gas companies can only drill one well per section, for example, and wind farms are pretty much banned altogether. In exchange, energy development and other uses are encouraged and even incentivized in non-core areas. 

State officials and many conservationists see this approach as a good one, maybe even better than ESA protection. It's a very targeted approach, focusing only on areas where the grouse remain active, whereas ESA restrictions would apply in all of the grouse's historic range, even in areas in which the grouse has already been wiped out beyond salvation. And, because industry was involved in the establishment of the core areas, it has buy-in. Federal regulations, to the contrary, tend to fuel anti-government sentiment, which might be redirected to the bird.

Critics of the core area approach, however, say that it goes too far in accommodating the oil and gas industry -- the lines were clearly drawn to exclude drilling sweet-spots (and state officials are not shy about the plan's intent to keep severance tax revenues flowing into the state coffers). On the other hand, the wind industry lost a substantial portion of high grade Wyoming winds to the core areas, souring the turbine-boosters on the plan. Many of the core areas are also isolated from the others, raising fears that habitat connectivity and genetic diversity may be sacrificed. 

Salazar said that in recent years sage grouse numbers had stabilized, and credited approaches like Wyomoing's for the success (Montana's plan is similar to Wyoming's, and every sage grouse state has some sort of protection strategy). The core area approach was successful in another way, too: Its primary purpose was to avoid the listing of the sage grouse, which could have added significant restrictions to huge swaths of oil and gas country in Wyoming.

Officials emphasized that today's non-listing decision is not permanent, and merely provides "a window" during which other conservation efforts can be tested and analyzed. That possibility keeps up the pressure on those efforts to succeed.






Patrick Donnelly
Patrick Donnelly
Mar 06, 2010 08:00 PM
The Obama administration is putting its goals for renewable energy ahead of species protection. This is setting a terrible and frightening precedent for what was supposed to be THE Administration for new ESA listings. Many species have been driven to the brink in the past few decades of conservative/moderate land management policies; and now that a progressive administration comes in- it continues the status quo! The sage grouse is clearly in need of federal protection, with numbers dropping by over 90%. And yet its interference in wind farm lands (as well documented by HCN) is trumping the ecological need. I pray that a similar fate does not befall the Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard in the desert of Southern California, whose critical habitat lies square in the middle of a variety of solar energy proposals on BLM land.

The Obama Administration is drawing a line in the sand- on the side of industrial development of public lands rather than species and biodiversity protection. Liberal voters take note.
sadly, not surprising...
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Mar 08, 2010 08:57 PM
I knew from the moment I heard Ken Salazar was brand new President Obama's pick for Interior: the sage grouse was DOA. I think that's the moment a lot of long-suffering conservationists, who thought they/we might have a voice in someone like Raul Grijava, got disheartened. Salazar has not proven himself to as bad as I'd imagined, but he's always been more about promotion than pith, and what could be more cowardly than to decline to list a species that its own Administration admits is long overdue for it? I guess this way both conservationists and extraction industries can be equally unhappy - us having lost ("for now") a big worthy battle for the environment, and them ("for now") not knowing when the Administration will decide to get serious about conservation, and do the right thing.
Sage Grouse listing
Lyn McCormick
Lyn McCormick
Mar 09, 2010 10:16 PM
Salazar bases his decisions on one thing: Livestock grazing. In spite of all the science and evidence of damage from livestock grazing on Sage Grouse habitat, his main objective is to keep the livestock industry happy. That is his background as a Western Rancher and those people are his constituents. Energy producers can be forced to comply with surface damage mitigation laws but there is no hope for meaningful restoration of the Public Lands ecosystems as long as the livestock industry has the use of them. At an annual cost of 500 million to 1 billion dollars (direct and indirect costs), the welfare ranching program needs to be "zeroed out" of the Public Lands equation.
Sage grouse core area
Sandra Goodwin
Sandra Goodwin
Mar 12, 2010 01:09 PM
Here we sit in WY in the middle of a "core" grouse area. We have a lek on our property and several more within 4 miles of us. A local county commissioner and gravel company have applied to the DEQ to enlarge a 10 acre gravel pit to a 300+ acre mine. Nothing in the application addresses the route to be used by semi trucks hauling gravel from the mine. This last summer the traffic was 400 semis a day from before daylight past all of the leks and nesting areas. Those of us living on the haul road suffered a host of health problems due to the noise and air pollution. It will be interesting to see if the promised protection for the sage grouse means anything. They certainly did not care about the people living here.