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.