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States to Be Sage Grouse Protector, Not Feds

In a milestone decision that the energy industry, state political leaders and environmentalists all support, the Obama administration on Tuesday decided to protect the greater sage grouse with public-private conservation programs at the state level and not through listing of the ground-dwelling bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It amounts to the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken, according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

A major political, economic and environmental issue for 11 western states and the subject of pleas from the oil/natural gas industry and western state governors, the ESA decision pending for months has brought together an increasingly unlikely set of allies. As a result, groups often on opposite sides, such as the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) on Tuesday morning praised the federal government's decision.

The states have maintained individually and through the Western Governors Association (WGA) that they are better able to oversee dwindling greater sage grouse habitat than are federal regulators as the governors of Oregon and Colorado recently said (see Shale Daily GPISept. 21). In addition, Jewell estimated that 90% of the highest potential oil/natural gas development areas are outside the "priority" habitat lands where the strongest protections apply.

As indicated by WEA leaders, however, there may still be an ongoing debate over the handling of the birds on public lands even with the decision not to do the ESA listing. Also facing the advocates for Tuesday's federal action is the potential for lawsuits from environmental, oil/gas, ranching and mining interests as articulated by House Natural Resources Committee's Chairman, Rep. Rob BIshop (R-Utah), who called the action a "cynical ploy" to cordon off large swatches of western lands from future drilling, mining, grazing and recreational activity.

In June, widespread feedback and at least 40 protests were directed at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on its proposed national plan for the greater sage grouse (see Shale DailyJune 30). All of this was leading up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's  (USFWS) ultimate decision regarding the potential ESA listing of the quirky birds whose habitat and numbers have been shrinking in the face of expanding development.

The greater sage grouse became a candidate for protection under the ESA in 2010, but following a court settlement in 2011, the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to delay a decision on listing until the end of September (see Daily GPIDec. 30, 2011). As a result, over the past five years there have been significant public-private efforts to protect the bird's 173 million acres of habitat, which is spread over 11 states and two Canadian provinces. The protection, by default, would also protect other flora and fauna in the grouse habitat.

Interior's Jewell and a huge throng of federal, state and environmental officials gathered at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Commerce City, CO, to unveil the decision by the USFWS that an ESA listing was unnecessary. The much anticipated action marks a major advance in state-federal cooperation for the Obama administration.

Earlier in separate speeches late last year and in July this year, Jewell had indicated that she thought the ESA listing could be avoided with state-private industry programs, a number of them already underway, to manage the protection of the bird's habitat (see Daily GPIDec. 9, 2014), more recently some population studies of the birds indicated an uptick in their numbers (see Daily GPI,Aug. 9).

The plans have been directed at carving out sanctuary for the birds’ key habitat areas while allowing oil and gas development and recreation to continue in other areas. Records of Decisions were issued Tuesday finalizing the 98 land use plans that will help conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development on portions of public lands in 10 states across the West. The announcement included state-by-state fact sheets.

In the midst of a celebratory announcement, Jewell called the nonlisting decision the "end of the beginning," noting that "there has never been anything done like this before" and the hard work now begins to implement 98 separate federal and state land-use plans that were hammered out over the past three years. "We're talking about tens of millions of acres and the management will not be left to any one agency.

Four governors -- John Hickenlooper (Colorado), Matt Mead (Wyoming), Steve Bullock (Montana) and Brian Sandoval (Nevada) -- appeared with Jewell to reiterate that their states and WGA worked over the recent years to reach the compromise that is represented by the nonlisting decision. "This wasn't just about the sage grouse," Hickenlooper said. "The plans we will implement now are going to protect a whole landscape and many of other species." said Hickenlooper, who with Mead co-chairs the WGA's task force on sage grouse.

"There is nothing in the ESA that mandates listing species as endangered; the law's mandate is to protect our species," said Wyoming's Mead, calling the results of the state-federal decision "a collaborative effort of a magnitude I have never seen." He said the efforts are already seeing positive results in Wyoming because the male population of sage grouse has been increasing in the past two years.

Montana's Bullock, whose state's sage grouse habitat is mostly on private lands, said none of the states or agencies got everything they wanted in this collaboration. He added that a lot of work still lies ahead that will require more "strong partnerships." The immediate past-WGA chairman Nevada's Sandoval said that "leadership matters," and "the right group of people have to come together" to resolve a situation like the sage grouse protection issue, and for his state collaboration is essential since 90% of Nevada's habitat falls on federal lands.

"It is a lot easier to fight than to work together," Sandoval said. He and the other governors commended Jewell "as the right person at the right time" to resolve this conundrum among states, federal agencies, industry, agriculture and environmental interests.

For wildlife conservationists, the greater sage grouse is a barometer on the eco-health of broad stretches of the wide-open western landscape and its ecosystems. The health of the sage grouse also indicates the health of hundreds of other species that are dependent upon the sagebrush and creatures in it, wildlife biologists conclude.

"What's good for the bird is good for the herd," an Interior Department fact sheet noted, along with other little known facts, such as the bird's habitat supports $1 billion of outdoor recreation, and the sage grouse males undergo an elaborate annual mating ritual in which they strut, fan their feathers and inflate their bright yellow throat sacs while making a "popping sound" to attract female sage grouse.

While applauding the ultimate federal decision on the listing, WEA's Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government/public affairs, said "the right decision" was made, but it took "the wrong path," noting that BLM and U.S. Forest Service "persist in top-down, centralized management" of the bird habitat protection. Nevertheless, "states, counties, federal agencies, industries, ranchers, private landowners, and conservation groups have come together to successfully protect the sage grouse," Sgamma said.

EDF's Eric Holst cited the Colorado Habitat Exchange as an example of "energy companies, agriculture leaders and state working together to put forth new solutions." The EDF associate vice president for working lands, Holst said the sage grouse decision "sends a strong signal that investments in conservation are making a difference and provide the catalyst for a different kind of politics."

In a day with one superlative after another, the Center for American Progress visiting senior fellow, David Hayes, issued a laudatory statement calling the federal action  "one of the largest conservation achievements of our generation."

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