As a wildlife professional with 40-plus years experience working in academia and with state and federal agencies, I've seen the status of several species change in response to protective measures. In March the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the greater sage grouse merits Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection.
The sage grouse was added to the list of candidate species awaiting protection under the ESA when funding allows. The decision is controversial. Many wildlife advocates view federal protection as the only way to rescue declining sage grouse populations in the West. On the other hand, some feel federal protection brings with it management complications.
Sage grouse populations have declined in recent decades due to a suite of causes including habitat loss, invasive plants and possibly overgrazing and predation. Over the past decade, numerous efforts have been launched to reverse the tide. Several studies on sage grouse ecology have been conducted. Individual states and the Western Association of Wildlife Agencies have developed comprehensive management plans. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service as well as private landowners have worked to improve habitat. Local working groups brought diverse stakeholders together to develop conservation strategies, including innovative grazing plans. As the Utah Sage Grouse Management Plan shows, these efforts have not resulted in dramatic recovery yet, but they do represent progress and momentum. A primary motivation for these efforts has been to forestall protection under the ESA to keep management in state hands.
The service found that progress to date was still insufficient to preclude listing. Now that the sage grouse has moved a step closer to protection under the ESA, there exists even greater impetus for all of the states to step up the pace in their conservation efforts. There is an urgent need to improve the sage grouse's status both from the standpoint of the bird's conservation and the states' interest in keeping the species off the endangered list when the service evaluates the need for protection under the ESA next year.
Western states should begin by adopting guidance the BLM issued on March 5. This directs the agency to "ensure environmentally responsible exploration, authorization, leasing and development of renewable and nonrenewable energy resources within the range of sage grouse." The BLM administers at least half of the sage grouse habitat regionwide, and habitat fragmentation from oil and gas drilling is arguably the greatest threat currently facing the birds in eastern Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. In recent years new information has also surfaced indicating possible negative impacts of habitat fragmentation from wind and solar energy development.
The BLM called for the development of a rangewide sage grouse priority habitat map highlighting habitat of the highest conservation value relative to maintaining sustainable sage grouse populations. The BLM will work with state wildlife agencies to adopt a consistent protocol in developing the map. The Instruction Memorandum also identified several interim actions available for protection of sage grouse populations including not issuing oil and gas drilling leases in priority habitat as well as screening new applications for oil shale leases, wind and solar energy developments and transmission projects in priority habitat. We're still learning more about sage grouse habitat use, so the priority habitat map should change over time, but changes should be based on science, not the result of political pressure.
The service's decision provides an opportunity for state and federal agencies to continue collaborative efforts toward sage grouse conservation and to avoid adding yet another Western species to the endangered list. This would be a win-win for the greater sage grouse, industry and those working to protect the bird. Together we can develop a path forward that works for all involved.
Michael L. Wolfe
is a professor at Utah State University.