In a decision with far-reaching consequences for land use in the West, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced Tuesday that ongoing conservation efforts are sufficient to ensure the survival of greater sage grouse, which will not be listed as an endangered species.
The decision means management of the iconic game bird, regarded as a crucial indicator species for the ecological health of the West's arid sagebrush plains, will remain with the states. However, along with the move to withhold protection under the Endangered Species Act came new restrictions on mineral development and other ground-disturbing activities in sage grouse habitat on public lands.
These provisions, which came in the form of numerous land-use plan amendments, were necessary to justify keeping sage grouse off the list of threatened species, federal wildlife officials said.
This aspect of the Interior's long-anticipated decision drew swift and pointed rebukes from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Rob Bishop, who called it "a cynical ploy" and "a de facto listing."
"Don't be fooled," said Bishop, a Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. "With the stroke of a pen, the Obama administration's oppressive land management plan is the same as a listing. Now, successful conservation done at the state level will be in vain. The new command-and-control federal plan will not help the bird, but it will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama administration."
In contrast with the support voiced by other Western governors, Herbert vowed to pursue relief in Congress and the courts.
Jewell praised steps and investments made by Utah and the other states, but said more must be done to preserve not just the bird — once so numerous its flocks darkened the sky and fed pioneers — but also the sagebrush landscapes on which rural economies and so many other species depend, including mule deer and pronghorn.
"This vast landscape is suffering death by a thousand cuts. Longer, hotter fire seasons have eliminated millions of acres. Invasive species are pushing out native vegetation. And development is fragmenting the land," Jewell said in a video message. "By many measures, the sage grouse serves as the pulse of this imperiled ecosystem. Scientists estimate that greater sage grouse populations have fallen by as much as 90 percent since the 19th century."
Joined by four Western governors of both parties, Jewell unveiled the listing decision at Colorado's Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge along with senior officials in the Interior and Agriculture departments, including Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe.
Tuesday's move will likely dilute a political liability for Democrats heading into the 2016 election season, since a sage grouse listing would have resulted in onerous land-use restrictions. Instead, top officials and politicians heralded what they hope is a new era of collaboration and trust among state, private and federal land managers to protect imperiled plants and animals.
Some 16 million sage grouse once inhabited 290 million acres of high desert sagebrush plains stretching from California to the Dakotas. But their numbers dwindled to less than 500,000 and their range has receded thanks to degradation of sagebrush habitat from grazing, mineral development and encroachment by conifer trees and cheat grass.
In 2010, FWS concluded listing was warranted, but it lacked the resources to implement a listing rule.
That development spurred both lawsuits and conservation efforts that Jewell said were the most comprehensive in the nation's history.
The feds were under a court order to decide whether to list sage grouse by Sept. 30. Tuesday's decision is not the end, but the beginning of a new chapter in the sage grouse conservation story, Jewell said.
"It means certainty for states, ranchers, and developers who want to know where they can develop without compromising sage grouse habitat," she said.
Conservationists both jeered and cheered Tuesday's development.
"The conservation plan announced today marks a massive shift in the way our nation thinks about how to defend and protect wild animals and landscapes. It's all hands on deck, with states and private landowners as essential partners with the federal government working together for a plan that protects millions of acres across the Western states to be successful," said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resource Defense Council.
But Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, argued these plans allow too many loopholes and exemptions to shield sage grouse from the impacts of energy development.
"The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems. Like other politicians before her, today Secretary Jewell declared victory before the battle is actually won," Molvar said.
Wild Utah Project's Allison Jones struck a more hopeful tone, arguing the conservation measures could work, but that conservationists must continually verify that land managers stick to the obligations spelled out in the plans.
"To keep sage grouse from being listed, the states and federal agencies have made a lot of promises. Let's make sure these promises are kept, and kept for 30 years. Protections will take that long to bear fruit of turning around population declines," Jones said.
More than half the West's remaining sage grouse habitat lies on public land. The BLM's conservation plan identifies 67 millions of acres of "priority habitat management areas"on which development will be subject to new rules. Surface disturbance will be limited and no development can occur around the breeding grounds known as leks. The federal plan designates 2.7 million acres of priority habitat in Utah, in clusters across the state.
Meanwhile, energy industry representatives were thrilled the bird won't be listed, but were less pleased with what they called "top-down, centralized management" in the federal conservation plans, which withdraw more than 9 million acres of key habitat, called "sagebrush focal areas," from future mineral leasing. This mineral withdrawal, however, will not prohibit development on existing valid claims.
"The Interior Department arrived at the right decision [to not list], but took the wrong path to get there. The decision rests on robust population numbers and effective state and local efforts that are working to protect the species, not the flawed federal land use plans that the secretary also released today. As state wildlife agencies have shown, sage grouse populations have not only rebounded recently but are stable over the long-term," said Kathleen Sgamma, governmental affairs director for the Western Energy Alliance.
Despite energy-industry concerns, the governor of energy-dependent Wyoming, Republican Matt Mead, joined Jewell at Tuesday's event, calling the conservation plans, which hewed close to Wyoming's plan, a victory for both Western economies and sagebrush ecosystems.
"We can continue to create jobs and share our natural resources with the rest of the nation while the greater sage grouse thrives," said Mead. "This plan should serve as an example for other states that faces challenges with the Endangered Species Act."
Where Mead saw positive collaboration, however, Utah's Herbert saw federal overreach. He complained the feds have rejected Utah's sage grouse plan in favor of a "one-size-fits-all approach," thus jeopardizing further conservation efforts and economic development.
"These federal land use plan amendments are unnecessarily restrictive in nature and devalue Utah's management plan and the conservation commitments from private landowners," Herbert wrote in a formal response. "I have always believed that, as a state, Utah is better positioned to manage our sage grouse population than the federal government. Utah has in fact adopted a strong conservation plan designed to protect, enhance and restore sage grouse habitats throughout the state. This effort by Utah has resulted in the restoration of more than 500,000 acres of sage grouse habitat and a significant growth in sage grouse populations."