Sage grouse stew—The pot boils again over iconic bird

Sage grouse stew—The pot boils again over iconic bird

A simmering issue that has long been a part of what some like to call the “New West” has once again reached a boil, and how it plays out will have long-standing effects for ranchers in 11 western states.

In fact, two significant events occurred recently that will affect western ranchers who share the land with the greater sage grouse. In one, a coalition of western counties and associations representing industries important to the West’s economy filed challenges to the data being used in management decisions.

In the other, a coalition of state and federal agencies and private landowners in Wyoming announced the launch of the nation’s first sage grouse conservation bank. The effort resulted from a 2010 decision that the greater sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but was precluded by higher priorities.

This is not the first time that private landowners and state wildlife agencies have come together in an effort to preclude a federal listing under the ESA. The lesser prairie chicken, black-tailed prairie dog and dunes sagebrush lizard come to mind. In each of those cases, efforts to keep the feds out of state and private business met with varied success.

Will states and private landowners prevail in the recent dust-up over the greater sage grouse? Only time will tell. Here’s a look at two recent happenings that will be pivotal in the discussion:

Grouse data challenge

A coalition of western counties and ranching, mining and energy associations, including the Public Lands Council (PLC), recently filed three data quality suits regarding the greater sage grouse. The suits, filed under the Data Quality Act, challenge the information that the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), and U.S. Geological Survey are using to make public lands and ESA listing decisions for the greater sage grouse. The coalition is challenging the reports the agencies are using to justify top-down, restrictive measures that will damage western communities while discouraging more effective state and local conservation efforts.

The coalition is not anti-sage grouse—it supports state, local and private sage-grouse conservation efforts as opposed to the one-size-fits-all measures being imposed by the federal agencies. Brenda Richards, PLC president, said the reports do not address specific cause-and-effect threats to the greater sage grouse. 

Rather, Richards says the agencies have turned a blind eye to sound science and on-the-ground solutions in order to push their own agenda. The three challenges filed by the coalition document the extreme bias that results when agencies willfully use incomplete scientific information to support a false narrative that claims the federal government knows best how to conserve the sage grouse and manage the West.

Sage grouse conservation bank

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the nation’s first conservation bank for the greater sage grouse is now in place. The conservation bank will manage a vast expanse of central Wyoming for sage grouse, mule deer and other wildlife, allowing energy development and other economic activities to proceed on lands elsewhere in the state.

At the heart of the project is the Pathfinder Ranch, a 235,000-acre cattle ranch located west of Casper near Pathfinder Reservoir that provides significant wildlife habitat for the greater sage grouse and other native species. Originally purchased for wind-energy development, the project was converted to a conservation bank and deeded to the newly created Sweetwater Conservancy. The conservation bank will launch with 55,000 deeded acres. As the demand grows, it could expand to 700,000 acres on other lands owned by the Conservancy.

A conservation bank is a site or suite of sites established under an agreement with the FWS to protect, and where feasible, improve habitat for species. Entities can purchase “credits” that result from perpetual conservation easements and conservation projects on the land to offset impacts occurring elsewhere.

In 2010, FWS determined that the greater sage grouse warranted protection under the ESA, but was precluded by higher priorities. Since then, a broad-based coalition of stakeholders has come together across the bird’s 165 million-acre, 11-state range to address threats in an effort to prevent the need for a listing. Market-based mitigation tools such as conservation banks, and the financial incentives they provide, are valuable for conserving the habitat required for abundant, well-distributed sage-grouse populations.

Most of the Sweetwater River Conservancy Conservation Bank is classified as core sage-grouse habitat by the State of Wyoming, a designation applied to areas of the highest sage-grouse populations. In addition to sage grouse, the Conservancy will manage the property for the benefit of other wildlife and to promote improved water quality and quantity on the property. The Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust has been selected to hold and administer the conservation easements in perpetuity.

 

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