When it comes to the sage grouse — a spiky-tailed bird once described as a cross between a sumo wrestler and Elton John in camo — conservationists agree on a lot, like protecting the tens of millions of acres it inhabits in the West and halting the march of invasive species.
But, as the federal government is weighing whether to list the birds under the Endangered Species Act, not all conservationists want to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service add the grouse to the rolls.
Instead, conservation organizations across 11 states argue that by working with miners, ranchers, state governments, and others who care about the bird — and the implications of listing it as endangered — they can preserve sagebrush habitat and help the sage grouse recover.
Oddly enough, many groups say their top goal is to avoid a listing.
"Listing a species under the ESA is an admission of failure," said Kyle Davis, a consultant with the Nevada Conservation League and Wilderness Society in Nevada. "The hook is that we have this window of opportunity to do the right things now."
The exact window of opportunity depends on which species of bird you're talking about. A decision on the greater sage grouse, whose habitat stretches across a huge swath of the West, covering about 22 million acres and stretching from the Dakotas in the east to California in the west, from Montana in the north to Utah in the South (11 states in all), is expected in late 2015. The government expects a decision on a Nevada-California species early next year, and another species native to Colorado, called the Gunnison sage grouse, is expected later this year.
Regardless of the species, though, conservationists say there's urgency because the birds are just one species affected by the destruction of the sagebrush steppe. The sage grouse, they say, is simply an indicator of the habitat and the wildlife in it.
"A chicken-sized bird isn't the most dynamic rallying point," said Luke Schafer of Conservation Colorado. "But I would argue "¦ the story isn't the sage grouse. The story is the habitat it lives in and everything else that lives there, including us."
Another reason for avoiding a listing: If the government goes forward, it's unclear what might happen and what approach federal officials might take to conserve the bird and its habitat. That explains why conservationists are sitting down with miners, natural-gas companies, ranchers, and state governments.
John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League pointed to the possibility of uncertainty about grazing fees, for example, if the grouse is listed as endangered. "What we're trying to do is provide certainty for sage grouse and Idahoans," Robison said.
That uncertainty also gives conservationists at the state level an incentive to take the lead on forming plans to protect the species.
"We were initially skeptical," Robison said. "After participating in it for more than a year, we're cautiously optimistic, and we think we can achieve a better outcome by working together proactively among all these partners than by responding defensively to a listing decision."
Some call it a simple matter of preserving state and local autonomy. For example, a local working group that formed in 2012 is focused on preventing a listing of the Nevada-California bird, which dwells not far from Lake Tahoe. Members of the group took part at a federal public hearing just last week to make the case against a listing, according to an official who attended the event.
"It's an important part of the story," said Ted Koch, the Nevada state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They are focused on conservation and are "¦ concerned about losing control over local decisions."
But not all conservationists want to avoid a listing. One faction believes, as Robison and Davis do, that local planning before a listing provides a better opportunity for conservation, while another camp thinks the listing is what makes the difference.
The Western Watersheds Project, for example, is in the latter group. It felt the the various federal and regional plans were inadequate, objecting in particular to public-lands grazing, which the state working groups often accommodate. Mark Salvo, now with Defenders of Wildlife, who brought the initial petition to list the grouse more than decade ago and has been working on the issue since, sees inconsistencies in the process that state-level conservationists prefer.
"It's funny, sometimes the various federal agencies and the state working groups will all claim that they're working together when it comes to putting together these strategies," Salvo said. "But what emerges [is that] these plans are often very different, certainly inconsistent conservation schemes."
The disagreement over whether to list might divide conservationists but those divisions don't amount to much, they say. Ultimately, the goal is the same.
"There will always be difference of opinion, but it isn't a sticking point," Schafer said. "Our focus as a community is on ensuring conservation."