Endangered Species Act’s clout on display
Writers on the Range
On Sept. 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a landmark decision, declaring that the greater sage grouse, that icon of the Western High Plains, does not warrant federal protection. The chicken-sized bird’s numbers have dwindled from a historic high of perhaps 16 million to about 400,000, as its sagebrush range has been transformed into oil and gas fields, wind farms, ranches and subdivisions.
The federal decision is a favorable verdict on one of the biggest conservation experiments ever undertaken. To avoid an Endangered Species Act listing, which could put the brakes on many human activities across 11 Western states, local and regional partnerships and collaborative efforts poured immense amounts of money and effort into trying to save the bird.
People working at every level of government, along with ranchers, energy companies, utilities, mining companies and others, came up with action plans. They’ve done everything from placing conservation easements to halt development, to changing how cattle are grazed, to setting up shipping containers around drill rigs to create buffers that shield breeding grounds from disruptive noise.
“I believe this is the way to do conservation,” says Brian Rutledge, vice president of the national Audubon Society, referring to the compromises that have been made. “We’re engaging every tier of society that’s making a living in sagebrush. (But) we’re not stopping development, and everybody’s a little unhappy.”
Many of those collaborative efforts had been going on at some level for decades. But everything got kicked into high gear in 2010, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first announced that the sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act — although other vanishing species took higher priority.
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