The clock is ticking on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2015 deadline to decide whether to list the Greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. In the states where the grouse still exists - Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and the Dakotas - ambitious efforts seek to protect the species and make an ESA listing unnecessary. Wyoming – uniquely blessed with some 54% of the remaining sage grouse in the world, spread across 32 million acres of sagebrush habitat – is both ground zero for and the leader in a landscape-scale experiment in collaborative wildlife conservation.
This saga began in January 2005, when FWS decided not to list the species. Since then, sage grouse lawsuits have flown fast and furiously. Litigation was highly predictable, given the history of the ESA, the magnitude of the impacts associated with a potential listing, and the setting; conflict regarding wildlife conservation needs, goals and opportunities runs deep in the West, particularly in the “Sagebrush Sea,” where distrust of the federal government and its institutions often seems learned from birth. The most remarkable aspect of the sage grouse saga is that history and location notwithstanding, it has brought together federal, state and private sector interests across much of the western United States who seek to conserve the species and thereby make listing unnecessary.
Beginning in 2007, the landscape of sage-grouse conservation began to change, led by the State of Wyoming and its “Core Area Policy,” which was designed to identify, maintain, and enhance sage-grouse habitat and populations within the species’ core habitat areas. The pace quickened in 2011, when Oregon followed with a similar core-area approach. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hosted a sage-grouse conservation meeting in Cheyenne involving federal and state representatives, that. focused on the development of a coordinated, landscape-level conservation strategy, seeking a collaborative conservation effort at the state, federal and local levels.
Following the Cheyenne summit, the states of Utah, Idaho and Nevada initiated new efforts to develop their own sage grouse management plans, while various federal agencies are vigorously pursuing their own sage grouse conservation efforts. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are revising their management plans in Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and California to incorporate consistent sage grouse conservation objectives and measures. The Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage-Grouse Initiative is focusing on conservation grant and technical assistance programs to improve sage-grouse habitat and rangelands productivity. The Department of Agriculture announced an additional $18.2 million Grassland Reserve program in 2011 to help ranchers in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah conserve critical sage-grouse habitats.
And on March 8, 2012, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Salazar announced the establishment of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership program, a $33 million program to conserve sage grouse and six other species.
In addition to state and federal conservation efforts, ranching, mining, oil and gas and other interests are developing Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) to provide for sage grouse conservation on private and other nonfederal lands in Wyoming, Idaho, and elsewhere. FWS has recently published a draft sage grouse CCAA to be available for Wyoming landowners, and numerous other local efforts are ongoing.
Whether these and other efforts can make an ESA listing unnecessary only time will tell. Sage grouse still occupy some 160 million acres of land, making this a landscape conservation effort of heroic scale. Skeptics, and history, would bet against it. But if the state, federal, and private sector efforts are successful, it will stand as an historical moment in wildlife conservation, and as validation of the West’s author and historian laureate, Wallace Stegner, who wrote:
“This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origin. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water 38 (1980).