‘Chicken-Sized Bird’ Shows Why Conservationists Don’t Always Agree

Many are working against having the sage grouse listed as an endangered species.

Male greater sage-grouse struts to attract females at a lek (breeding or dancing ground) near Bodie, California in April.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
June 1, 2014, 7:08 a.m.

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.”

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