The Endangered Species Act’s biggest experiment

Will an unprecedented collaborative effort and lots of tax dollars be enough to finally save sage grouse?


Update: On Sept. 22, 2015, the greater sage grouse was declared to be no longer in need of Endangered Species Act protections. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the announcement for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In late April, the hills of Cross Mountain Ranch, near Craig, Colorado, are already dry; the only snow in sight caps the higher peaks on the horizon. A pond sparkles in the sun, and to the west, where the land rises in ridges, dark patches of juniper finger down the draws. On the crest of the hill where I stand, something catches my eye in a pile of rocks. It’s a greater sage grouse egg, buff-green with brown speckles.

Peering into its sand-crusted interior, I imagine a tiny striped chick emerging, toddling hopefully after its mother in search of food. But biologist Chris Yarbrough sets me straight: A raven probably devoured this one, he says, turning the shell over on his palm. A hatchling would have pushed out the egg’s large end; here, the middle is crumpled inward. I look again, my cheerful fantasy replaced by a scene from Jurassic Park — the one where the T. Rex shoves its head into a Land Rover to try to extract screaming children.

Aside from this particular chick, though, Cross Mountain’s grouse seem to have it pretty good. Last winter, a federal program called the Sage Grouse Initiative helped permanently protect 16,000 acres of prime habitat here through a conservation easement. The property’s abundant sagebrush provides food and cover for grouse, and its thick grass helps camouflage nesting hens. Ranch manager Rex Tuttle, a slight, soft-spoken 45-year-old, points out the pipes he installed from the pond to watering holes down valley; they feed wet meadows, where grouse chicks can fatten on insects. In the far distance, sheep graze; Tuttle says he’ll shift them to higher pastures in June to let the grass here go to seed, so it can shelter grouse this year and grow lush again next year.

He’ll do the same on the neighboring ranch, where he grew up and where another 15,000 acres have been under easement since 2012. Add in a third easement and neighboring federal lands, and a quarter-million acres here are now protected to support grouse and other wildlife.

It’s a conservation outcome that few could have imagined in the 1990s, when biologists first realized that sage grouse were in trouble across their range. Before European settlement, sagebrush covered more than 500,000 square miles; today, oil and gas development, renewable energy projects, subdivisions, wildfire, invasive species and poorly managed grazing have whittled it down to about 250,000 square miles scattered across 11 states. Perhaps 400,000 grouse survive, down from as many as 16 million.

But in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a decision that set in motion what many are calling a landmark transformation in how the nation recovers imperiled wildlife. Ordinarily, the sage grouse’s situation might land it on the federal endangered species list, ushering in much-feared land-use restrictions. But the agency declined to list the bird, not because it didn’t need protection — listing was warranted, it declared — but because other creatures needed it more. Instead, the agency promised to make a final call on sage grouse by Sept. 30 of this year.

That court-ordered deadline has been a galvanizing force for grouse conservation like no other. The federal government and the states have partnered with industry, landowners and environmental nonprofits to protect places like Cross Mountain, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on everything from setting aside vast swaths of sagebrush to cutting down junipers and poisoning ravens. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are cooperating with each other and with the states to protect habitat across tens of millions of acres. If they succeed in doing a good enough job, they may prove that the Endangered Species Act works best when it never goes into effect at all.

“I see a lot of people working hard together. Relationships have formed among people who never used to talk,” says John Freemuth, professor of public policy at Boise State University. Still, it remains to be seen whether those relationships will survive once crisis mode has passed, or whether the feel-good collaboration will be enough to save the long-suffering grouse. “This is a pivotal Western moment,” Freemuth says. “In 30 years, how will we be writing about this? How did the trajectory change?”

  • A male sage grouse displays in the sage country south of Pinedale, Wyoming, at the base of the Wind River Range.

    Mark Gocke
  • A sage grouse lies dead in the Jonah Field area of natural gas development in Wyoming.

    Jeremy R. Roberts/Conservation Media
  • Battling male sage grouse.

    Rick McEwen/Sage Grouse Initiative
  • Journalists walk the largest lek in northwestern Colorado, looking for feathers lost by greater sage grouse males.

    Theo Stein/USFWS
  • Vinyl fence markers are installed in Montana to help prevent collisions that injure or kill sage grouse and other birds.

    Jeremy R. Roberts/Conservation Media
  • Cattle and sage grouse coexist on the Big Creek Ranch in Idaho, which works with the Sage Grouse Initiative to maintain grazing practices that improve habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife.

    Rosana Rieth/USDA/NRCS
  • A greater sage grouse lies dead on the side of a road that services gas wells in the Jonah Field area of Wyoming.

    Jeremy R. Roberts/Conservation Media
  • Mitigation efforts like this one, which removed piñon and juniper from grouse habitat in the Smith Valley near Minden, Nevada, helped stave off the listing of the bi-state sage grouse.


Many species, when shouldered off their preferred habitats, can make a living elsewhere — robins, coyotes, mule deer. But sage grouse are exceedingly sensitive — disturbed by human activity near breeding areas; alarmed by trees and tall structures where raptors can perch. They’re loyal to the places they know, even if those places are no longer suitable. Matt Holloran, chief scientist at Wildlife Management Research Support, describes how one female grouse in western Wyoming laid eggs in the same general spot each year as a major natural gas field rose up around her. When a well pad replaced her nest site, she finally moved –– but just 30 feet away.

This sensitivity makes greater sage grouse a strong indicator of ecosystem health: If they’re not thriving across the vast Interior West, then things look bad for the region’s 350 other species, from sagebrush obligates like the sage thrasher and pygmy rabbit, to seasonal migrants like sandhill cranes and elk. Says Jennifer Hayward, Pinedale district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service –– the umbrella agency for the Sage Grouse Initiative –– “I don’t know why they don’t just list sagebrush itself.”

Listing the plant, though, might run up against the same limitations as listing the grouse. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to evaluate imperiled species’ circumstances and determine what level of protection they need based on science, exclusive of politics and economics. The law works best when used to protect a species from a single, controllable threat; peregrine falcons, for example, bounced back after DDT was banned.

But the sage grouse’s huge range and lack of adaptability complicate things, and the myriad threats it faces — many related to industries that define Western rural economies and identity — make wielding the law a much trickier prospect. Conservative politicians have for years sought to gut the act, and many conservationists worry a sage grouse listing would provoke fiercer attack — a prospect underscored by recent congressional attempts to boot several creatures off the list altogether and block funding for others.

That political grandstanding fuels fear and misinformation about what would actually happen if the bird were listed, says Pat Deibert, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s national sage grouse coordinator. “It’s like this big black hole,” she says. “People think the world would end, that they’d lose the ranch. But most would be relatively unaffected.”

More than one-third of sage grouse range is on private land, where the Endangered Species Act holds little sway. The law prohibits harming protected species, for example, but it can’t force landowners to undertake conservation projects that might help those species recover. Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service is plagued with tight budgets and has a long line of species waiting for recovery. There are more than 1,200 on the list, and 250 candidates await final determinations, some for more than a decade.

States, on the other hand, can move faster, and have greater on-the-ground expertise than the federal agency. Former Idaho and Colorado wildlife department biologists Jack Connelly and Clait Braun were among the first to raise the alarm about grouse declines. In the mid ’90s, as mounting threats became clear, they put together “all the data we could get our hands on,” says Connelly, and brought it to the attention of wildlife managers. In 1995, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies convened the states with grouse populations and nudged them into action. They began creating conservation strategies; some took a bottom-up approach, first developing local working groups, then rolling those results up into statewide plans. Idaho’s came in 1997, Nevada’s in 2001.

Wyoming — home to roughly 40 percent of the nation’s remaining grouse — mounted the most comprehensive effort. While other state plans relied almost entirely on voluntary efforts, a state statute gave Wyoming regulatory authority over oil and gas development, the primary threat facing grouse in the state, across federal, state and private jurisdictions. The state created a policy in 2008 to protect what it determined to be the most important chunks of habitat. Ranchers, miners, oil and gas companies, environmental groups, state and federal agencies all had a place at the table. They capped the amount of surface disturbance allowed inside these “core areas” and instituted seasonal work stoppages. Wind development was discouraged in those areas, and oil, gas and transmission lines were restricted.

But as environmentalists’ court battles to list the bird intensified over the same timeframe, it was becoming clear that, range-wide, grouse conservation efforts still weren’t cutting it. Oil and gas were booming again, and wind turbines popped up like mushrooms. In the Great Basin, severe wildfires devoured sagebrush and invasive cheatgrass moved in, fueling more big burns. Livestock grazing continued to degrade land in some areas, while in others, drought dried up water supplies and withered plants. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service weren’t doing enough to stop habitat loss, while many states weren’t effectively implementing their plans. Nobody had made enough sacrifices to ensure the bird’s long-term survival.

In some ways, little seemed to have changed since High Country News ran a cover story assessing the situation in February 2002.  “Several years into a Westwide effort to conserve the grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem,” author Hal Clifford wrote, “there are only modest results.” 

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Just after dawn, Yarbrough indicates that I should peer through a spotting scope aimed at a gravelly area at the base of a draw. I kneel on a red plastic placemat in front of the scope to keep from getting muddy, and about 50 male sage grouse pop into focus, their wings held vertically and their spiky tails fanned wide.

If sagebrush makes up the grouse’s universe, then this is the center of its solar system. It’s a lek, where male grouse return each year to dance for females and scuffle with rivals. Most stories about sage grouse open with a scene of clichéd majesty — the ancient ritual of the dancing birds. But when the males puff their white chests and inflate their yellow air sacs, the result looks disconcertingly like a halved hard-boiled egg. Whup whup sounds drift through the chilly air. Several males strut boldly in the lek’s center, but most lurk in the shrubs, as if half-hoping no one sees them. “They’re like the less-popular boys at the high school dance,” comments Chris West, then executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, as he takes a turn with the scope. “Kinda standing against the wall with their hands in their pockets.” The hens seem unimpressed.

This particular lek is on a ranch several miles east of Cross Mountain. Most other leks are on or near private land, too: A Sage Grouse Initiative study suggests they’re almost always within six miles of the wet summer habitats where grouse raise chicks. These meadowy areas are overwhelmingly in private hands, because they also attracted human settlement.

That’s where the Sage Grouse Initiative comes in. Tim Griffiths, the program’s national coordinator from 2010 until July 2015, knows from experience how endangered species struggles can breed mistrust. He was a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Klamath Falls, Oregon, in 2001 and 2002, when farmers’ irrigation water was turned off to protect salmon — prompting a near-insurrection — and then turned on while salmon fry died by the thousands. “Wildlife was pitted against agriculture,” he recalls, “and in the end, nobody won.”

He remained convinced that the two could be reconciled, and in Montana in 2004, he got the chance to prove it with a fish called the fluvial Arctic grayling, which was headed for an emergency listing. Griffiths and State Conservationist Dave White, now both working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped channel Farm Bill dollars into efforts to keep more water in a stretch of the Big Hole River and improve its quality by helping ranchers move feedlots and restore riparian areas. It was the first time that the NRCS had set aside a dedicated pool of money from its own wildlife habitat incentive programs to help with a broader species conservation initiative.

Those voluntary efforts worked so well that the agency decided to apply the approach to a species with a much bigger range: The greater sage grouse. Taking a card from Wyoming’s deck, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department mapped out the areas containing 75 percent of the state’s birds. Then, in one of those core areas near Roundup, the NRCS developed conservation plans with 10 ranchers to test the approach. Because the agency works with agricultural producers as a partner rather than as an enforcer, it lacks the political baggage of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. “Folks saw we weren’t coming out with black helicopters, and heard through coffee-shop talk about the benefits,” says Griffiths. “Healthy rangelands support sage grouse and also support vibrant agriculture.” Eventually, 90 percent of the 200,000-acre core area was covered with conservation plans.

So the conservation service extended the program to the rest of Montana’s core areas, and then began scaling up to the other 10 sage grouse states, which each mapped key grouse habitat. By the time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached its “warranted but precluded” decision in March 2010, the Sage Grouse Initiative was ready to go, with White as NRCS chief. “We launched the very next day,” Griffiths recalls.

Now funded with Farm Bill money through 2018, the Sage Grouse Initiative works with more than 75 partners, including state wildlife departments, energy companies and nonprofit groups. Most came on board through a migratory bird project called the Intermountain West Joint Venture, which contributed $15 million to help put “boots on the ground” in rural areas to work with landowners. Today, about 30 biologists are stationed in small towns like Randolph, Utah, and Burley, Idaho. All are jointly employed with partner organizations, including Yarbrough with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “They’re 10 percent of (the initiative’s) work force,” says Griffiths, “but they account for 50 percent of our accomplishments.” 

So far, the initiative and its partners have invested about $425 million in projects involving 1,200 landowners, with greater reach than an endangered species listing could achieve. Participants receive a compliance check once every three to five years, says Jason Weller, head of NRCS, and most follow their conservation plan.

The stats seem impressive: 400,000 acres of important grouse range have been cleared of encroaching conifers, which provide perches for predators and crowd out sagebrush. Ranchers now maintain taller grass on 2.6 million acres — which the initiative says bumps up nesting success by 10 percent. At least 500 miles of fencing have been moved or marked, reducing often-fatal collisions with wires by more than 80 percent. And more than 450,000 acres have been placed in conservation easements, permanently protecting most of them from subdivisions and wind farms, and substantially reducing the threat of oil and gas development. 

Back on Cross Mountain, Chris West says that the conservation easement the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust placed on the ranch wouldn’t have been possible without the Sage Grouse Initiative. It contributed half of the $5.6 million paid to the ranch’s owners; a private donor and Colorado Parks and Wildlife covered the rest. Initiative dollars have made more than a dozen other Trust easements possible.

Under Endangered Species Act “candidate conservation agreements with assurances,” landowners who implement certain conservation measures are protected from further restrictions if that species is listed. In a similar way, initiative signatories get 30 years of certainty that if the bird is listed and they continue approved conservation practices, they won’t be asked to change those practices, nor will they be prosecuted if they accidentally harm or kill a grouse.

They also get a lot of federal dollars to make improvements on their land that benefit their bottom line as well as the bird. But 80 percent of the ranchers involved rely on BLM and Forest Service grazing allotments, so the Sage Grouse Initiative hopes to figure out how to extend approved conservation plans to cover those acres, as well. “(The whole program) is truly the biggest experiment in the history of the Endangered Species Act,” says Griffiths. “Nothing this big, this orchestrated, has ever been attempted.”

Video: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

On a windy May afternoon, I stroll along a wall of red shipping containers lined end to end. A tall metal structure rises behind them, and the groan of diesel engines and clank of pipes fills the air. This could be an industrial shipping yard on Seattle’s Puget Sound. But it’s a terminal on a very different sea: Sagebrush rolls in green waves eastward all the way to Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Here on the Pinedale Anticline, managed by the BLM, the infrastructure of natural gas extraction lies thick — well pads, pipelines, roads, compressor stations, built by Shell, Ultra and other companies.

The shipping containers, which are set atop earthen berms, are one company’s response to BLM limits on drilling noise, which can cut lek attendance and breeding success. It’s part of a much more sweeping effort to change how business is done on the federal land that is home to two-thirds of the remaining grouse habitat, in order to avert an endangered species listing.

But the most important part of that has less to do with how energy companies develop resources than with regulations governing where they’re allowed to do it. That was a significant shortcoming of previous federal efforts to safeguard grouse. The lack of regulatory certainty that habitat would be protected was one of the primary reasons the Fish and Wildlife Service decided in 2010 that federal protection was warranted.

In response, the Interior Department and Agriculture Department have thrown a huge amount of muscle and money into a comprehensive strategy to manage BLM and Forest Service lands, developed in close cooperation with the states. “These (federal) plans are unprecedented — they’re collaborative, landscape-level and science-based,” says Jim Lyons, deputy assistant secretary with the Department of Interior. “This is really the first attempt to implement the Endangered Species Act as it was intended — by conserving habitat so listing is not needed.”

The centerpiece of the federal effort came out this summer, when the agencies unveiled 14 near-final plans that will usher in much more stringent protections than previously existed on 66 million acres of federal grouse habitat. They’ll also set in motion large restoration and mitigation efforts to compensate for unavoidable development, and, perhaps most importantly, institute range-wide monitoring frameworks to determine how conservation strategies are working. Those frameworks include specific trigger points: If the number of male birds attending leks declines by a certain percentage, for example, then protections will be ratcheted up.

All the plans take a tiered approach to habitat protection, similar to the strategies favored by Wyoming and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The tightest restrictions apply to “focal areas” critical for grouse survival; next is “priority” habitat. Existing energy leases and rights of way are grandfathered in, but both designations limit additional surface disturbance. “General” habitat offers the least restrictions. Though grazing, properly managed, is not generally considered a major threat, the plans prioritize reviewing allotments within high-priority habitat; some may also allow for the permanent retirement of certain allotments.

Many conservation groups, especially the large mainstream ones, regard the federal plans as a huge improvement. “It’s achieved a lot of what we hoped it would achieve,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “Compared to other planning efforts we’ve seen, these plans provide more certainty, more landscape-scale cooperation and more actual protection.”

The federal plans differ from each other in significant ways to better mesh with state strategies, which have also generally gotten more rigorous as the deadline nears. In 2011, then-Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar convened the State-Federal Sage Grouse Task Force and encouraged states to step up their efforts. Some governors issued executive orders requiring state agencies to consult with wildlife departments before doing anything that might harm grouse, while others revised and strengthened earlier plans, often with input from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In Idaho, for example, Republican Gov. Butch Otter assembled legislators, industry representatives, ranchers, sportsmen, county commissioners, and members of conservation groups. “At first, it didn’t look like the all-star team,” says grouse biologist Connelly, who advised the team along with other experts. “But they incorporated the best available science, even when they didn’t like it.” The plan prohibits wind development, transmission lines and other energy development in the most important sage-grouse habitat. If that habitat is lost to wildfire or otherwise destroyed, or if large numbers of birds die off, additional protections kick in. The BLM incorporated Idaho’s plan as a preferred alternative for its Idaho and Southwest Montana regional plan. 

In Wyoming, federal plans hew closely to the state’s core-area strategy, which has garnered both praise and criticism. Endangered species advocates believe the state plan, despite multiple updates, remains too friendly to industry, and indeed, significant new development has been allowed inside some core areas. And the BLM’s plans adopt Wyoming’s lek buffers, which forbid surface occupancy for drilling only within a .6-mile radius — much less than the distance that scientists recommend. Even so, the Fish and Wildlife Service supports the state plan, citing its breadth and regulatory force. Federal plans covering Colorado and Nevada, meanwhile, extend the no-surface-occupancy restriction across priority habitat and enforce a three-mile buffer around leks.

Over the past five years, says San Stiver, sage grouse coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a lot of horsepower has been added to state efforts, as every Western governor has endorsed plans and every state legislature has dealt with the issue. Now, he says, “their credibility is on the line. There’s an earnest attempt to make sure things get implemented.”

Video: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Yet despite all the plans, projects and collaborations, it’s hard to tell if the conservation actions undertaken by states, the Sage Grouse Initiative or any other group will bump up grouse numbers over the long haul. The birds are fairly long-lived and reproduce slowly, and their populations tend to cycle, hitting natural highs and lows over many years.

A recent study for the Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, found that bird numbers dropped a whopping 56 percent between 2007 and 2013. In August, though, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies reported that they’ve climbed by two-thirds since that time. It may take decades to average out such spikes and dips; many biologists think the overall trend is either stable or downward. “Sage grouse declines are not as dramatic as they were 70 years ago,” says Holloran, who’s studied grouse since the ’90s. “But overall there still seems to be a decline.”

“In Wyoming, you’re not going to stem losses,” adds Griffiths. “But with policy and easements, you’re going to greatly curb those losses. And in other places like Oregon and Idaho — there, you’re actually building birds up and building range up. We’re hoping this will even out over the range.”

However, critics argue that the focus on preserving just the best remaining habitat means that the bird will get considerably less protection across its range than it needs. If it were listed, most of the land it occupies would, theoretically at least, be designated as “critical habitat” and legally safeguarded. In late July, WildEarth Guardians released a report showing that, compared to draft versions, the near-final BLM and Forest Service plans have dropped protections for about one-quarter of the priority habitat that the Fish and Wildlife Service had specified as vital to recovery. “How is that agency now going to say with a straight face that these plans are adequate to protect the species and prevent a listing?” asks Erik Molvar, who directs the group’s Sagebrush Sea Campaign. (As of press time, the Interior Department hadn’t responded to the report.)

Clait Braun, the biologist who helped raise early alarms about grouse, is similarly skeptical. “I have no confidence that anything anyone is doing is working,” he says. Wildlife species need connectivity to maintain healthy genetics, and scattered areas of high-priority habitat are not enough to provide that. Nor do any plans set aside large permanent reserves, protected from all development. Voluntary conservation efforts fall short, since many, especially those undertaken by industry, aren’t measured to see what they’re actually accomplishing. Braun sees the Sage Grouse Initiative as less an effective way to conserve grouse than a taxpayer-funded subsidy program for ranchers. “It’s a slick PR effort, but I fail to see the results. There’s no data to show that grouse numbers have increased or that their distribution has increased.” Within 30 years, he predicts, the birds will persist only in tiny, widely dispersed populations.

And despite strong monitoring and adaptive management, in which the federal plans change course whenever trigger points are hit, others fear that the land agencies’ own pinched budgets and political inertia will sabotage the effort. “Monitoring is expensive, and it has to be implemented in the long term,” says former BLM biologist Steve Belinda. “And what happens if you don’t turn things around for grouse? BLM’s history on adaptive management is poor to fair at best.”

At least 200 protests have been filed against the plans, from every direction. The Western Energy Alliance says oil and gas development is unduly restricted, while Colorado and Montana complain that the plans don’t give them enough authority over protections for the bird. Earlier this summer, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead praised the federal plans in appearances with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But now he’s backed away, citing numerous issues that he claims have gone unaddressed. Idaho Gov. Butch
Otter has expressed similar reservations. 

Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and other environmental groups have protested as well, claiming that the plans’ provisions are far weaker than what’s needed to avert a listing. And at this point, listing is an outcome that few want to see — even on the environmentalist side. “We wouldn’t be as engaged (in sage grouse conservation) if it was a listed species,” says The Wilderness Society’s Culver. A listing would make conservation actions more piecemeal, as individual projects are proposed and the feds evaluate how each one might affect the grouse. “That’s a lot more challenging,” she says. “We have a big scope, but we don’t have endless resources.”

Tom Christiansen, Wyoming’s lead sage grouse scientist, puts it more bluntly: “What message would it send to our society,” he asks, “if the largest conservation effort ever undertaken failed?”

Video: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

So what would a sage grouse listing actually look like? Ask an endangered species activist or lawyer, and you’re likely to get generalities, accompanied by reminders that nobody has a crystal ball. A “threatened” designation allows for more flexible management than an “endangered” listing. The activist would tell you that either adds public accountability — opening the door for lawsuits if the government isn’t doing enough — and both experts would mention additional restrictions on economic activity and prohibitions on injuring or killing a sage grouse. Furthermore, the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to be consulted about any federally funded or permitted activity — drilling or grazing, say — that might harm the bird or its habitat, which can cause significant and costly delays.

But even if the grouse is listed, it doesn’t mean that “the largest conservation effort ever undertaken” has failed, because the effort itself is likely to define the terms of the listing — possibly even making it stronger than what the agency would have developed on its own. The Fish and Wildlife Service would lean heavily on the existing work when it puts together its own recovery plans. And the private land agreements designed to help grouse would remain in place. The sage grouse, in other words, has already flown.

This scenario has played out with the sage grouse’s cousin, the lesser prairie chicken, which lives mostly on private land in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. When the bird landed on the “warranted but precluded” roster in 1995, collaborative efforts sprang up; the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies developed a range-wide plan, and a Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative followed later. Fish and Wildlife still listed the bird as threatened in March 2014, after worsening drought knocked its numbers to perhaps 18,000. But the agency noted that the collaborative efforts were similar to the kind of formal recovery plan it would normally create several years after a species’ listing, and developed a special 4(d) rule meant to soften the blow for businesses and landowners by honoring existing efforts.

As a result, the listing has been far from catastrophic. “We heard a dull thud. Nothing happened,” says Terry Riley, director of conservation for the North American Grouse Partnership. “Energy companies haven’t gone out of business, ranchers haven’t lost their operations. That was a surprise to a lot of people.”

With sage grouse, too, the threat of a listing has mobilized conservation work much more quickly than an actual listing probably would have done. What’s more, says Ya-Wei Li, senior director of endangered species conservation with Defenders of Wildlife, “the restrictions imposed under these (federal) frameworks are far more significant than what we’ve seen for many other species that have been listed for decades.”

Still, the risk of alienating stakeholders is very real, and state buy-in, like landowner buy-in, is vital. “Several governors have told me that if it’s a federal bird, then it’s a federal problem, and the feds can fund it and the feds can deal with it,” says Audubon Society Vice President Brian Rutledge, who has long been involved with Wyoming’s efforts. “We would much rather have the sage grouse managed at the local level,” adds Fish and Wildlife’s Deibert, “(so people) can make decisions relevant to their landscape. That’s very difficult for us to do looking across 11 states.”


Video: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

That kind of local management is now the rule for at least one small group of sage grouse — much to the relief of ranchers, Washoe Tribe members, and the many other stakeholders who had been working since 1999 to save the bi-state population of greater sage grouse.

On April 21, Interior Secretary Jewell, along with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and other officials, stood on a stage outside the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s headquarters to announce that the 2,500 to 9,000 birds on the California-Nevada border no longer warranted federal protection, thanks to voluntary conservation efforts. It was a hot, sunny day, and most of the chairs arranged on the grassy lawn were empty. But a big round of applause went up from under the surrounding trees, where dozens of attendees had sought shade. The bi-state birds had been added to the candidate list in 2010, and three years later the agency proposed to list them as “threatened”; now, provided populations remain strong, they won’t be listed at all. “It’s a great feeling of accomplishment, and of enthusiasm to keep moving forward,” says Shawn Espinosa, a state biologist who’s been part of the collaborative efforts. “Now we won’t have that specter (of potential listing) lurking behind every working group meeting.”

If the same thing happens with greater sage grouse, it could add momentum to, rather than undermine, the ecosystem-wide efforts the bird’s predicament has inspired. “This is the start of something bigger,” says Holloran. “It has the potential to evolve into the process under which all wildlife is managed,” at least for landscape-scale species that range on private land.

Indeed, that’s already happening at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “There’s a big shift in the wind here that’s really good,” says agency chief Weller. Within the past year, the Oregon chub was delisted and the Louisiana black bear was proposed for delisting — both of them saved by voluntary landowner conservation that the NRCS helped foster. As with sage grouse, protecting these species protects other creatures that share the same habitat — an approach that the agency has continued to concentrate on.

In 2012, the conservation service created the Working Lands for Wildlife Program, expanding Sage Grouse Initiative-style efforts to six other umbrella species across the U.S., including the southwestern willow flycatcher; Griffiths was just named Western regional coordinator for the program. Working Lands for Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Service recently released an ecosystem-wide biological opinion for the flycatcher that covered 83 other species that are either listed as threatened or are candidates for listing — the first time the agencies had issued a collective opinion for multiple species. Landowners who sign conservation plans for the flycatcher will work to remove invasive species and restore the riparian habitat that all those creatures — including the yellow-billed cuckoo, Chiricahua leopard frog and New Mexico jumping mouse — rely on. If any are later added to the list or upgraded to endangered, the ranchers will have the same 30-year certainty that the Sage Grouse Initiative offers. “Now we have predictability for the whole riparian ecosystem,” says Weller.

Still, it’s unclear just how well that approach will work. Dealing with dozens of species at once does add “layers of complexity,” says Griffiths. “We’ll have to test drive this for a year or two and see what needs tuning.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service itself realizes that this kind of effort, with engagement from landowners, industry, and every level of government, can result in the kind of landscape-scale conservation needed to preserve not just a single species, but entire ecosystems. “The success is in the partnerships,” Deibert says. “I’m hopeful that eventually, even if folks don’t agree a particular species is of value, they’ll realize it’s a good business decision for them to do conservation.”

Bouncing down a dirt road on Cross Mountain Ranch in his white pickup, Rex Tuttle gestures toward a large black-and-white border collie sitting in the back of the crew cab. “Don’t try to pet Junior,” he warns me; the dog doesn’t like to be bothered by strangers, a sentiment that might apply to Tuttle as well. The ranch manager looks anxious, reflecting the apprehension pervading the sagebrush steppe about Fish and Wildlife’s upcoming decision on Sept. 30.

But things are unlikely to change on Cross Mountain or anywhere else, anytime soon. Thanks to a budget rider Congress passed last December, the agency will be able to announce only whether the sage grouse is or is not still a candidate for listing. If the bird warrants protection, the agency is blocked from developing a rule to protect it as threatened or endangered for at least another year.

Still, Tuttle is clearly worried about the future of his own neighboring ranch, which he hopes to pass down to his sons, now 15 and 17. The conservation easement reduces the ranch’s value and hence the eventual inheritance tax, in addition to benefiting wildlife. “We’ve done all we can to help grouse,” Tuttle says, “but we can’t force other ranchers to do the right thing.” If the grouse is eventually listed, Tuttle wonders if his operation can remain viable — especially since it relies on hundreds of thousands of acres of public-land allotments where grazing might be curtailed. Ranching is already dicey enough, he says, citing difficulties with hiring sheepherders and fending off predators like black bears. “I told my boys they both need to plan to go to college and get degrees,” he says, sounding resigned. “That way they can do something else if the ranch doesn’t work out.” 

Jodi Peterson is a senior editor at High Country News, and writes from Paonia, Colorado. 

The videos in this story were provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from their film “The Sagebrush Sea” which originally aired on the PBS series Nature in May 2015.  You can see the entire film on Nature’s website.


Hi there, reader.

We hope you found value in the article, above.

Before you go, I’d like to ask you for a few dollars of support.

For more than 50 years, High Country News has been funded by readers just like you: citizens of the world who are curious and passionate about the West.

I’m guessing you are the kind of person who stays abreast of news and takes time to keep informed about issues that matter to you. As such, I’m sure you’re well aware that journalism around the globe is in real trouble.

You can help our team of independent writers, editors, illustrators and photojournalists stay focused on the important stories with your tax-deductible donation today. Even $4 – or the cost of a small latte – makes a difference to us.


We hope you’ll return to this website again, and read as much as your tough or tender heart can consume. And you’ll feel better knowing you’ve invested in fair-minded, in-depth journalism.

We need you now, more than ever.

Onward, with courage and resolve!
Greg Hanscom
Executive Director/Publisher