The Interior Department has decided not to list the sage-grouse as an endangered species, a huge win for local landowners, however the agency will still move forward with land use plans in 10 states across the West.
The decision comes just days before the September 30th deadline set forth by a 2011 settlement between the Interior Department and wildlife interest groups calling for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to make a determination on sage grouse.
FWS reached this determination after evaluating the bird’s population status, along with the collective efforts by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage-grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173-million acre range. After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information and taking into account ongoing key conservation efforts and their projected benefits, the FWS determined “the bird does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future and therefore does not need protection under the ESA.”
“Today’s decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” said agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities. Through the comprehensive initiatives on both public and private lands, the partnership has made and will continue to make monumental strides in supporting the people and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush landscape.”
Land use plans
The BLM and USFS also announced that they have issued Records of Decisions 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 land use plans were developed during over a multi-year process in partnership with the states and local partners, guided by the best available science and technical advice from the FWS.
The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have adamantly opposed these restrictive plans, which they say impede on conservation efforts and range management practices already in place.
“The Administration came to the logical decision not to list the sage grouse, but went ahead and forced through their land use plans, which are just as concerning as a listing,” said Brenda Richards, PLC president. “Instead of recognizing the stewardship that land users have voluntarily put in place, they are pushing forward their agenda which ignores multiple uses on our lands.”
A report released in February showed that since 2010, private landowners have worked with USDA and its partners through the Sage Grouse Initiative to restore 4.4 million acres of habitat for sage-grouse while maintaining working landscapes across the West. Since proper grazing is beneficial to the wildlife habitat, Richards said the government working in partnership with ranchers makes the most sense for the land and wildlife and is how land management and conservation efforts should be made.
The announcement of the final land-use plans is still highly contentious and is expected to garner legal action by environmental interest groups as well as several of the affected states. In early 2014, PLC and NCBA filed detailed comments addressing concerns with the draft Environmental Impact Statements. With little to no improvement in the final documents, the livestock industry filed protests in nine states across the West and is pursuing a legal challenge against the government on their reliance on flawed science.
The National Assn. of Conservation Districts (NACD) continues to support voluntary, incentive-based conservation efforts and strongly encourages that government agencies consider the potential impact these practices can, and already have had, before handing down new, more stringent regulations.
“The Sage Grouse Initiative has been a hallmark example of how fruitful coordinated conservation efforts can be when landowners and operators are brought into the conservation planning process early on and are encouraged to participate through an incentive-based approach as opposed to one of imposing harsh regulatory limitations” said NACD president Lee McDaniel. In the past five years, conservation easements have increased 18-fold in priority landscapes that are critical habit areas for sage grouse and roughly 4.4 million acres of habitat have been conserved.
House Committee on Natural Resources chairman Rob Bishop (R., Utah) said the decision was a cynical ploy, calling the Obama Administration’s oppressive land management plan the same as a listing. “The new command and control federal plan will not help the bird, but it will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama Administration. Some Western governors see this for what it is and I will work with them to ensure the rational plans created at the grassroots level that solve the problem will be the way forward to protect this bird,” Bishop said.
The Committee will hold a full committee hearing entitled “Respecting State Authority, Responsibilities and Expertise Regarding Resource Management and Energy Development” on September 30.