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A greater sage grouse shows off.

A greater sage grouse shows off.

U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr (

U.S. sage grouse plan draws divided reaction

Seeking a truce in a battle that has pitted a showy, pointy-tailed bird against virtually every industry of the western United States, federal officials today said they would implement a plan to protect the greater sage grouse without listing it as an endangered species. Reaction to the move is divided, with supporters saying it represents an innovative approach to a complex problem, and detractors arguing it ignores research findings on the bird’s plight.

Populations of greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) have plummeted by an estimated 90% as oil and gas drilling, mining, ranching, wildfires, and invasive species have consumed its critical habitat in sage brush ecosystems. There has been a lengthy debate over how best to protect the bird, which is North America’s largest grouse. Some conservation advocates wanted the grouse to get the greatest legal protection available under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). But others feared a listing would cause massive economic harm in the 11 western states where the bird lives, and fuel political efforts to gut the law.

To avoid that outcome, federal officials are trying what some call “a 21st century approach to conservation,” which essentially offers state governments and private landowners incentives to preserve and restore sage grouse habitat in exchange for avoiding restrictive regulation.  In particular, “an extraordinary collaboration” among government agencies, environmentalists, and industry has yielded a set of 98 state and federal land-use plans covering 67 million hectares that should reverse the species’ slide, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said today at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. Flanked by the governors of four western states, Jewell called the effort “the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the United States, and perhaps the world.” And it’s not over yet.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead,” said Jewell, noting it could take years to implement the plans. “Today’s announcement is really the end of the beginning … We need to keep learning about what’s working in this landscape. And we need to incorporate science into our decisions in the future, just as we have in getting to this point.”

Officials said they drew on the findings of a massive, multiyear research effort in crafting the plan. It will withdraw some sage grouse strongholds from future mining claims, and will put into action plans for fighting invasive cheatgrass and controlling rangeland fires. The plans don’t ban oil and gas drilling, but restrict them in certain areas that have been identified as critical to the sage grouse. Jewell said that the compromise was successful in protecting 90% of the bird’s most critical habitat, while allowing 90% of the areas of highest value to the oil and gas industry to be drilled.

Many groups welcomed the plan. It marks “a new lease on life” for the sage grouse and some 350 other species that rely on the sage brush ecosystem, said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society in New York City, in a statement. Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation in Vienna, Virginia, said in a statement that the approach “illustrates what the Endangered Species Act is supposed to be all about: galvanizing collaborative efforts to save wildlife species before they’re on the brink of extinction.” (O’Mara attended today’s announcement.)

But Randi Spivak, director of public lands for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tuscon, Arizona, said that by circumscribing the highest level of protection only to certain areas, the administration is displaying “more political science than biological science.”

Spivak praised the planned restrictions on hard-rock mining, but said they should be in place throughout the habitat. She added that research suggests the plan will allow oil drilling activity both too close to mating grounds, and too close to places where females nest. The birds tend to flee such disturbance.

“I don’t see how they can say they relied on science,” Spivak said. She said her group, which several years ago filed the lawsuit that forced the Interior Department into making a decision on the sage grouse, would carefully read and consider the management plans before deciding whether to challenge the decision in court. “When it comes to species, decisions have to be based on science,” she said. “If it’s just what everyone is comfortable they can do, it is not adequate and does not meet the law.”

The plan also is facing criticism from industry and some politicians, who say it puts too many restrictions on industry in the West. The Independent Petroleum Association of America said the plan will take an unfair toll on the nation’s smaller oil companies. Representative Rob Bishop (R–UT), said the Obama administration’s approach is simply an ESA listing by another name.

Ed Arnett, senior scientist with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a group devoted to preserving hunting and fishing habitat, said his group and others that support the sage grouse decision believe its success will depend on how it is implemented. That will mean careful monitoring both of compliance and whether the plan is actually helping to protect the bird and sage-steppe ecosystem.

 “From a management and science perspective, this is a very large adaptive experiment [with] a lot of unknowns,” he said in a phone interview with ScienceInsider. “Now, it’s time to put it on the ground. This is paper habitat and paper birds, until we see things manifest on the landscape, when we’ll see real habitat and real birds.”

The greater sage grouse is one of a handful of lek mating species in North America; males habitually return to certain sites to perform elaborate ritual dances that attract mates—and birdwatchers. But Jewell emphasized that today’s decision was not just aimed at saving “an amazing, scrappy bird.” The sage grouse, she said, was a “canary in the coal mine” for the entire sage-steppe ecosystem, and its decline “was warning us our old way of doing things was not sustainable.”