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The sage grouse two-step

Massive federal sage grouse conservation plans strike a delicate balance.

 

Northern spotted owls are white-and-brown tree dwellers with sprays of feathers between their eyes. Greater sage grouse are football-sized ground-strutters, whose males flaunt yellow chest sacs during mating season. The owls nest in drippy old-growth Northwest forests; the sage grouse, beneath the dry, silvery fronds of their namesake shrub. When spotted owls were blamed for shutting down the Northwest’s timber industry in the ’80s and ’90s, bumper stickers appeared with slogans like “I love spotted owls … fried.” And though people actually eat sage grouse, their notoriously bitter taste has perhaps kept them off the tongue-in-cheek menu.

The two birds couldn’t be more different, but they’re often compared because their declines catalyzed massive, controversial federal interventions. A few years after the owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration hammered out the nation’s first-ever landscape-scale attempt to manage for ecosystem health. Crafted in a mere 90 days under intense pressure to end years-long wars over logging’s environmental toll, the Northwest Forest Plan sought to balance the industry with habitat protections across 24 million federal acres. But timber harvests proved much lower than promised, leaving local communities reeling and making the spotted owl a magnet for ESA bashers.

Critics will have an even better target if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the grouse this year: The bird shares its vast range with powerful industries like oil and gas. To avoid a listing, in late May Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled 14 plans that protect 66 million acres of grouse habitat on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands across 10 states. Unlike the Northwest Forest Plan, though, the sage grouse process has been collaborative from the get-go. The resulting strategy walks a political tightrope, building on states’ existing efforts to conserve the bird, while imposing the consistent, range-wide safeguards needed to convince Fish and Wildlife that additional protections are unnecessary.

“We’re trying to put together something that works for the bird and provides flexibility for sustainable economic development,” says Jim Lyons, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals, who has helped coordinate the planning since 2013 and did the same for the Northwest Forest Plan. But if things skew too far in either direction, the whole endeavor may collapse.

 

Over more than a century, wildfire, invasive species, energy development, livestock operations and ranchettes have gobbled up sagebrush steppe, causing sage grouse numbers to plummet from historic estimates in the millions to as low as 200,000. Though the new plans vary, all adopt tiered restrictions for a large swath of the remaining habitat. The most stringent go to “sagebrush focal areas” that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified as critical to the species’ survival, then to “priority” habitat. Both limit overall surface disturbance, and, with notable exceptions in Wyoming, generally forbid aboveground infrastructure on new oil and gas leases and exclude renewable energy development. “General” habitat faces the fewest limits.

The rules won’t apply to existing rights of way and oil and gas leases, and habitat areas aren’t off-limits to future leasing, but the administration says most viable hydrocarbon reserves are outside their boundaries anyway. Nor is grazing prohibited anywhere, though every proposal includes stepped-up protections if bird numbers or habitat decline below set levels.

Many environmentalists offer circumspect praise, saying the plans appear much stronger and more consistent than their 2013 drafts, which hewed more closely to the priorities — and politics — of individual states. “Is it perfect? No,” says Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center director. “But it’s a stewardship vision. Cross-state wilderness lands, wildlife migration corridors, those should all be easy to plan for after this.”

Still, some states are balking at the changes. “While lip service is paid to ‘collaboration,’ the focus of federal regulators is increasingly unilateral and dismissive of state conservation actions,” Kathleen Clarke, Utah’s sage grouse lead and Bush-era BLM chief, told a House committee -recently.

Harder-line environmental groups are pushing back, too. For example, in fossil fuel-rich Wyoming — home to 37 percent of remaining sage grouse — the feds adopted the state’s existing 5 percent cap on total surface disturbance in priority habitat, rather than the 3 percent limit in most other plans. But studies have shown that anything above 3 percent will result in lost birds, argues WildEarth Guardians’ Erik Molvar. “For an administration that claims to be concerned about climate change, they sure are bending themselves into a pretzel to keep sage grouse from becoming an obstacle to drilling.”

Yet Fish and Wildlife itself has endorsed Wyoming’s strategy. And the 5 percent cap is actually more restrictive than other states’ because it counts wildfire and invasive weeds as “disturbances,” says Audubon Society Vice President Brian Rutledge, a member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team. “This ecosystem was utterly without protection 10 years ago. We’re a hell of a lot better off than we were.”

That kind of “good-enough” sentiment hints at the delicate politics surrounding sage grouse. A rider passed last year already forbids Fish and Wildlife from spending any money in 2015 to issue rules for grouse if it determines protection is required. As of early June, Congress was considering a defense bill amendment that would delay both a listing decision and implementation of the federal sage grouse plans for several more years. If federal conservation efforts don’t go far enough, and the bird is listed, the ESA itself will be open to even fiercer attack. If they alienate states, the backlash against the plans could also gain momentum.

“You can’t turn the whole West over to sage grouse,” says Fremont County Commissioner Doug Thompson, an active participant in Wyoming and federal conservation planning. Thompson recently lobbied lawmakers not to interfere with the process, but “if the final determination is that the plans are as bad or worse than a listing,” he says, “then I might change my mind.”