The greater sage grouse is not heading to the Endangered Species List, for now. US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the long-awaited announcement Tuesday from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge at an outdoor press conference flanked by four state governors, a rancher and other federal and nonprofit officials.
“It does mean a brighter future for one amazing, scrappy bird that calls the West home,” Jewell said of the decision, “But, more than that, it means certainty for states, for communities, for ranchers, for developers who want to know where they can develop without compromising the health of the amazing sagebrush landscape.”
She touted the efforts of 11 states in pulling off what she calls the largest and most complex land conservation project in U.S. history. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the sage grouse warranted an endangered or threatened listing, but it wasn’t listed at the time because the agency had higher priorities and didn’t have the resources to protect the bird then. After that decision, states and federal agencies sprung into action to avoid the listing. Through collaborative efforts between industry, environmentalists, and private landowners, management plans for the grouse were developed which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now believes will keep declining sage grouse populations stable for the foreseeable future.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said millions of acres of sage grouse habitat have been conserved, protecting 90 percent of critical breeding areas and keeping oil and gas drilling a safe distance away.
“This has been the most scientifically rich and transparent listing decision ever made,” he said.
A number of environmental organizations, including Conservation Colorado, The Western Values Project, Rocky Mountain Wild and the Colorado Wildlife Federation, applauded the decision as a collaborative victory.
But, for Wild Earth Guardians, which settled with the federal government to set the September 2015 deadline for a decision on listing, the decision was a disappointment. Their sage grouse specialist, Eric Molnar, believes federal officials do not have the best interest of the bird in mind.
“It is difficult to imagine how this listing decision is based on science rather than politics,” he said.
He believes current plans allow oil and gas developers too much leeway to encroach on grouse habitat and that exceptions to current development restrictions are given too easily. His organization is considering legal action.
On the other side of the debate, Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said her group was planning to sue over “draconian” sage grouse habitat restrictions on the oil and gas industry on federal lands, finalized in conjunction with the Tuesday announcement.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said this will continue to be an evolving process. The state is now asking the federal government to approve a “habitat exchange” program, allowing oil and gas companies to pay private landowners to improve sage grouse habitat.
“We continue looking for land exchanges and opportunities for improving habitat everywhere we can,” he said, “recognizing we’ve got to try growing our rural economies at the same time.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will re-evaluate the status of the sage grouse in five years.
Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Erik Molnar works for Defenders of Wildlife.