Opinion by Bob Budd
Sage Grouse Conservation Makes Sense
By Bob Budd, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Executive Director
Five years ago, the state of Wyoming took an unprecedented step in the arena of species conservation. Rather than waiting for the federal government or the court system to mandate the outcome of an “endangered” listing, we took a proactive approach to address sage grouse conservation within the context of social and economic realities. The result was a statewide plan that focused on protection of birds and habitat where birds do exceedingly well and, at the same time, allowing economic activity in areas where minerals, recreation, agriculture and other enterprises make the most sense.
From the start, no one cared much for this approach. Some environmental groups insisted the bird had been sold down the river, while some industry groups lamented the fact that they could no longer work in Wyoming. Despite the saber rattling at the time, the end result is that we are managing both the species and economic activity today, in a manner that gives equal consideration to both objectives.
There is really no biological reason to believe sage grouse are in danger of complete extirpation. Bird numbers are robust in many parts of the range, though there are many extreme challenges to the species in others. Fire and cheatgrass invasions in California may doom the few birds there, particularly after last summer’s season of hell. Some populations have seen serious declines due to mineral development. And, the impact of climate change and habitat conversion remains largely unknown.
The problem with managing sage grouse is not so much our ability to care for the species and its habitat. Rather, the problem in interpretation of the Endangered Species Act and applications that may either be chosen by the Fish and Wildlife Service or mandated by federal courts. The Wyoming model applies the logic that conservation of any species is best handled closest to home and that the greatest opportunity to make a difference occurs where the species does best. A solid conservation plan in Wyoming will positively impact nearly half the birds in the world, even when using the “core area” strategy that allows intensive economic activity in some areas inhabited by sage grouse.
The alternative to this approach is the heavy-handed influence of the Endangered Species Act, and some people have asserted that they are willing to take their chances with the Act. That may well be, but it is important to understand what that roll of the dice means in the event of a listing.
If listed as “endangered,” every sage grouse everywhere is protected equally under the law. Wyoming will be treated no differently than any other state. Every acre of suitable habitat is protected. Every action that creates a federal nexus (think federal minerals or something as innocuous as a road that intersects a BLM 40) will require formal consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Restrictions on natural resource use will almost assuredly be more restrictive. And, while actions on private lands will not require additional permitting, a “taking” of sage grouse is punishable wherever it occurs, with severe fines and potential criminal liability that can attach, including jail time and additional fines. By the way, the citizen suit provision allows environmental groups to sue to compel prosecution of violations of the Act.
“Take” is loosely defined in the law as any action that “harms” or “harasses” the species – something that should give one pause when thinking about what might constitute “harassment” of a bird that uses sound and color to attract a mate and which may migrate long distances to seasonal range. Finally, the Endangered Species Act is colorblind to the realities of economics, culture and society. The Spotted owl gave us all a clear picture of how that plays out.
The people of Wyoming, working with all interests at the table, have chosen a proactive conservation strategy that is firmly based in the biology of the species and, at the same time, recognizes economics and culture. Industry, agriculture and other primary resource users have assumed a leadership role in creating and implementing strategies that minimize impacts, and in some cases, forego development in deference to conservation. Cooperative efforts to maintain and enhance habitat have emerged throughout the state, and innovative strategies to build mitigation banking and incentives for conservation are currently in development.
At no time in history have so many diverse interests become invested in the well being of a species. Between the actions of private landowners, federal permittees, industry leaders and conservation groups, the future for sage grouse could not be better. While this strategy requires vigilance and some sacrifice, there is little doubt it will work long into the future. Yes, there are changes and tweaks that have to be made, but we have the ability to do so in Wyoming, with a process that is open and inclusive of all interests.
As for the alternative – protection under the Endangered Species Act – all of the action, funding, dedication and commitment to sage grouse conservation by that diverse group of stakeholders will likely be lost. That may be why you don’t see sage grouse rolling dice.