The sage grouse two-step
High Country News
Northern spotted owls are white-and-brown tree dwellers with sprays of feathers between their eyes. Greater sage grouse are football-sized ground-strutters, whose males flaunt yellow chest sacs during mating season.
The owls nest in drippy old-growth Pacific Northwest forests; the sage grouse, beneath the dry, silvery fronds of their namesake shrub. When spotted owls were blamed for shutting down the Northwest’s timber industry in the ’80s and ’90s, bumper stickers appeared with slogans like “I love spotted owls … fried.” And, though people actually eat sage grouse, their notoriously bitter taste has perhaps kept them off the tongue-in-cheek menu.
The two birds couldn’t be more different, but they’re often compared because their declines catalyzed massive, controversial federal interventions. A few years after the owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration hammered out the nation’s first-ever landscape-scale attempt to manage for ecosystem health. Crafted in a mere 90 days under intense pressure to end years-long wars over logging’s environmental toll, the Northwest Forest Plan sought to balance the industry with habitat protections across 24 million federal acres. But, timber harvests proved much lower than promised, leaving local communities reeling and making the spotted owl a magnet for ESA bashers.
Critics will have an even better target if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the grouse this year: The bird shares its vast range with powerful industries like oil and gas. To avoid a listing, in late May, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled 14 plans that protect 66 million acres of grouse habitat on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands across 10 states. Unlike the Northwest Forest Plan, though, the sage grouse process has been collaborative from the get-go. The resulting strategy walks a political tightrope, building on states’ existing efforts to conserve the bird, while imposing the consistent, range-wide safeguards needed to convince Fish and Wildlife that additional protections are unnecessary.
“We’re trying to put together something that works for the bird and provides flexibility for sustainable economic development,” says Jim Lyons, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals, who has helped coordinate the planning since 2013 and did the same for the Northwest Forest Plan. But, if things skew too far in either direction, the whole endeavor may collapse.
Over more than a century, wildfire, invasive species, energy development, livestock operations and ranchettes have gobbled up sagebrush steppe, causing sage grouse numbers to plummet from historic estimates in the millions to as low as 200,000. Though the new plans vary, all adopt tiered restrictions for a large swath of the remaining habitat. The most stringent go to “sagebrush focal areas”, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified as critical to the species’ survival, then to “priority” habitat. Both limit overall surface disturbance, and, with notable exceptions in Wyoming, generally forbid above-ground infrastructure on new oil and gas leases and exclude renewable energy development. “General” habitat faces the fewest limits.
The rules won’t apply to existing rights of way and oil and gas leases, and habitat areas aren’t off-limits to future leasing, but the administration says most viable hydrocarbon reserves are outside their boundaries anyway. Nor is grazing prohibited anywhere, though every proposal includes stepped-up protections if bird numbers or habitat decline below set levels.
Many environmentalists offer circumspect praise, saying the plans appear much stronger and more consistent than their 2013 drafts, which hewed more closely to the priorities — and politics — of individual states.
“Is it perfect? No,” says Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center director. “But, it’s a stewardship vision. Cross-state wilderness lands, wildlife migration corridors, those should all be easy to plan for after this.”
Still, some states are balking at the changes.
“While lip service is paid to ‘collaboration,’ the focus of federal regulators is increasingly unilateral and dismissive of state conservation actions,” Kathleen Clarke, Utah’s sage grouse lead and Bush-era BLM chief, told a House committee recently.
“You can’t turn the whole West over to sage grouse,” says Fremont County Commissioner Doug Thompson, an active participant in Wyoming and federal conservation planning. He recently lobbied lawmakers not to interfere with the process, but “if the final determination is that the plans are as bad or worse than a listing,” he says, “then I might change my mind.”
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