Cue the greater sage grouse lawsuits

With the bird’s non-listing under the Endangered Species Act, expect more of the legal crawl that got us here in the first place.

 

Today’s long awaited decision about the greater sage grouse – that it does not need Endangered Species Act protections – was no surprise to anyone who’s been following the bird’s saga. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service was looking for every reason possible to avoid putting the wide-ranging bird on the ESA list, because of the potential impact a listing would have on energy production and development across huge swaths of the West.

Greater sage grouse hens.
Greater sage grouse hens in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy USFWS.

Hardline environmental groups were dismayed. For example, here’s the Center for Biological Diversity’s Randi Spivak: “Greater sage grouse have been in precipitous decline for years and deserve better than what they’re getting from the Obama administration.” The CBD is considering its legal options, Spivak told Greenwire, and groups like Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians are as well (most of the mainstream green groups, with a few exceptions like Defenders of Wildlife, are applauding the call).

Ironically, though, the hardline groups are partly responsible for the decision they’ll be seeking to overturn. If it hadn’t been for the pressure of a deadline created by an environmental group’s lawsuit, it’s not likely that sage grouse conservation efforts would have ever been strengthened enough to circumvent a listing. Instead, things would have gone along as they did before the court-ordered deadline – some state-level planning, a few collaborative efforts, weak attempts at protecting sage grouse habitat on public land.

Grouse conservation first began to pick up steam in the late 1990s, when state biologists noted declining populations. Mark Salvo, now of Defenders of Wildlife, was instrumental in first petitioning for the grouse’s protection under the ESA (see our timeline of grouse milestones). That petition helped force the Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the bird’s status in 2005, determining that it didn’t need federal protection. But that decision was tainted by political meddling, and Fish and Wildlife had to give it a do-over. The result was that the grouse took a seat in the endangered species waiting room.

It took another lawsuit, this time filed by WildEarth Guardians, to force Fish and Wildlife to set the September 2015 deadline for getting the bird out of the waiting room: either by listing it or declaring it no longer needed protection. With the looming possibility of federal protection and all its attendant restrictions, collaborative conservation kicked into high gear.

The subsequent five years of intense efforts and unlikely partnerships are what led the Department of Interior to announce today that the sage grouse doesn’t require federal intervention. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the run-up “the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the USA, even the world."

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead,” Jewell continued. “In the weeks, months and years ahead, we need to implement the state and federal plans and the rangeland fire strategy, learning what’s working, incorporating science into decisions, and staying committed to what’s right for sage grouse.”

Detractors, too, see the feds’ work cut out for them. Especially on the “science” part. A major justification for the non-listing decision was the release today of final Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service plans for managing sage grouse habitat across 67 million acres, widely praised for their rigor. But some environmental groups charge that those plans ignore the agencies’ own scientific recommendations for conserving the bird and its habitat.

Enviros won’t be the only ones filing lawsuits. The federal land management plans are sure to be challenged by the oil and gas industry as well, for placing too many restrictions on where and when it can operate. And some Western states are threatening litigation over those plans as well.

Meanwhile, as the court cases grind along, the possibility of a future listing if the bird continues to decline should motivate ongoing conservation efforts. “Losses will continue but at declining rates, compared to the historical average,” said Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe. “We must sustain efforts and implement plans or we will find ourselves reconsidering.”

Jodi Peterson is a senior editor at High Country News

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]