Habitat conservation collaboration keeps greater sage grouse unlisted

An unprecedented habitat conservation collaboration led the US Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. Listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act would have triggered restrictions having significant adverse impacts on oil and gas operations.

The collaboration involved multiple federal agencies; state, county, and local governments; the oil and gas industry and other businesses; private landowners; environmental and recreation groups; and other stakeholders.

The collaborative, science-based effort was the biggest land conservation effort in US history, Sec of the Interior Sally Jewell said in announcing the decision in Denver on Sept 22. “It means a greater future for this amazingly scrappy bird, but more important, it means more certainty for people who use these landscapes,” she said.

Jewell was joined at the press conference by four western governors—John D. Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Matt Mead (R-Wyo.), Steve Bullock (D-Mont.), and Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.)—as well as US Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonne; FWS Director Dan Ashe; US Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze; US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell; Natural Resource Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller; and US Geological Survey Acting Director Suzette Kimball.

“I believe this collaboration will serve as a model for what we do in the West in the future,” Jewell said. “We’ve never done anything like this before. Conservation previously involved random acts of kindness. This involved keeping entire landscapes—hundreds of millions of acres—healthy and recognizing that each species is important and needs to be protected.”

FWS faced a court-ordered Sept. 30 deadline to review the greater sage grouse’s status. This spurred numerous federal agencies, the 11 states that include parts of the bird’s habitat, and dozens of public and private partners to begin working together. Efforts ranged from BLM’s revising land management plans to protect sage grouse habitat more aggressively to state and local governments developing their own habitat protection plans and private landowners adopting new measures on their own.

Not one-size-fits-all

“We’re proving that what’s good for the bird is good for the herd—and we’re not done yet,” Ashe said. “This isn’t a one-size-fits-all effort. We’re going to tailor our efforts and work with individual landowners. Ranchers, with assistance from NCRS, have stepped forward and shown species not only can be kept off the endangered species list, but taken off when habitat is rehabilitated.”

Hickenlooper noted, “This wasn’t just about the sage grouse, but multiple species. It will need to continue for decades to come and resolve other issues as effectively. It means continuing this partnership to keep improving where we live.”

Officials from two industry associations welcomed the decision, but with some reservations.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president for government and public relations at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver, said DOI “arrived at the right decision, but took the wrong path to get there.” She said, “The decision rests on robust population numbers and effective state and local efforts that are working to protect the species, not the flawed federal land use plans that the secretary also released today.”

Sgamma said in protests of BLM and USFS adopting new land-use plans, WEA highlighted many corners that were cut that leave the agencies vulnerable to legal challenges. “The plans exaggerate the impact from energy development and fail to recognize that oil and gas coexist with sage grouse conservation,” she said. “In fact, companies already avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts and have implemented more than 770 specific conservation measures to protect sage grouse.”

‘Willing, committed partners’

Daniel Naatz, senior vice-president for government affairs and political relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, also warned that new federal lease plans ultimately will result in far greater adverse economic impacts on independent producers.

“IPAA members have demonstrated they are willing and committed partners in species and habitat conservation,” Naatz said. “These local businesses have proven it’s possible to balance a thoughtful, targeted conservation approach with energy and economic development—the very foundation for many small towns and local communities in the bird’s 11-state range.”

The American Petroleum Institute welcomed FWS’s decision regarding the species’ protection, and expressed support for a science-based approach to managing public lands in the West.

“This decision is based on the best science and will allow the oil and natural gas industry to responsibly develop energy resources while continuing to protect the environment,” said Erik Milito, API’s upstream and industry operations director. “Our industry has led the way in working with states and government agencies to preserve Western habitats as production continues to provide the energy America demands.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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