Ranchers across the West can tell you about sage grouse.
Many of them can tell you about where they nest and where they breed, how they taste. They can also tell you that there aren’t as many as there used to be.
Though ranchers and land managers in 11 states in the West acknowledge that sage grouse levels may be reaching dangerously low population levels, they are doing all they can to keep the sage grouse from being put on the Endangered Species List.
Listing a species can signal the near end for the species, or for the livelihood of the people who share its habitat. Listing as threatened or endangered is not something anyone wants for the sage grouse.
Sage grouse habitat covers 186 million acres, though conservation efforts are focusing most heavily on 78 million acres in those 11 states where sage grouse populations are the highest.
Half of the birds’ habitat is on private land.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have programs in place to encourage landowners to enhance habitat for sage grouse, providing both incentives and resources to accomplish their goals.
In exchange for implementing practices like juniper removal, and marking fences so the grouse don’t fly into them, the landowners receive compensation, usually in the form of cost-share for the projects, and the assurance that if the sage grouse is listed, the landowners will not be subjected to further regulation.
Brad Bousman, a rancher from Boulder, Wyo., says “the heart of the best sage grouse country” has participated in the programs through the Sage Grouse Initiative, funded and supported by the NRCS, and has a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances through the U.S. FWS.
One of his projects was to convert windmills to solar power, eliminating a perch for raptors, one of the biggest predators of sage grouse.
“I’ve already done pretty much everything they asked for anyway, so it wasn’t any big deal for me,” he said.
The agreements required that he have a grazing plan, to not do anything to hurt the sage grouse, not subdivide — “There was a list of things that most everybody around here does anyway,” Bousman said.
Bousman said his primary motivation was to get the assurances that he would not have to further modify his operation if the sage grouse is listed.
“The second reason is to try to prevent the listing of the bird,” he said. “We’re hoping a lot of people will get them and that will help the FWS in their decision to list or not to list.”
Bousman said that at any time he can end the agreement with a 30-days notice, but he will lose those assurances of no further regulation.
Concerns over cattle numbers
Jack Owen, a rancher in southeast Montana, said the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks approached him a few years ago about paying him for leaving the sagebrush on his property undisturbed, but it would have required him to allow hunting on his property.
“I guess I never decided I wanted to get the government mixed up in my outfit here,” he said.
While he isn’t part of a formal program for preserving sage grouse habitat, Owen said in his observations, his grazing practices are compatible with preserving the sage grouse habitat. He has chemically controlled sagebrush in some instances, but the controls he used left about a quarter of the sagebrush. “It got things back in the balance you might have seen 100 years ago,” he said. “There’s still sagebrush, there’s still habitat there.”
Owen has private property and Bureau of Land Management leases. He said he is concerned that the management priorities, if the sage grouse is listed, may affect the number of cattle he can run on his BLM leases.
“Right now I don’t think there’s any policy in place to affect our business yet, but it sounds like it could be just around the corner,” he said.
It’s that concern for how listing the sage grouse as threatened or endangered may affect the economies and management practices in the 11 affected states that prompted the introduction of federal legislation by Representatives Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., that would give states a bigger say in how the sage grouse habitat is managed.
The Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act would give states the option to write management plans for sage grouse. These management plans could take into account multiple uses, and be customized for each state. They would have to be approved by the U.S. FWS, but once they were approved, this legislation would bind the U.S. FWS to the management practices spelled out in them.
The legislation would require that federal agencies comply with the state management plans, even on federally-managed lands.
Wyoming already has a management plan in place.
“This is already happening without the legislation,” said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, and director of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association–Federal Lands. “This legislation would give that force of law behind the state plans. Right now the Fish and Wildlife Service can say, ‘That’s great you made a plan, we generally agree with it,’ but it doesn’t require that the FWS manage within those plans.
“We’re already seeing grazing AUM cuts. The Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t said grazing is a detriment, but it’s one of the only changes they can make on federal lands. It’s a way for the BLM to say they’re helping the sage grouse. If this legislation passes, the states can craft a plan that says maybe you shouldn’t graze during this period, but the rest of the time it’s fine,” Van Liew added.
With habitat spanning from Washington to Wyoming, the diversity of the land use and the landscape doesn’t lend itself to a one-size-fits-all federal management plan, he said.
Theo Stein, public affairs officer for the U.S. FWS in Denver said, “We’re still working to understand the bill’s effect on ongoing sage grouse conservation efforts. The administration doesn’t have a formal comment on the bill.
“We’re focused on working with our partners to get conservation on the ground and as many protections in place as we can. We’re working hard with lots of folks to protect the sagebrush community that’s so important to ranchers as well as wildlife,” Stein said.
“As an agency our goal is to conserve not only the grouse, but the large, healthy sagebrush landscapes the sage grouse needs. These lands are important for ranching, which keeps agriculture communities whole and keeps families working close to the ground. There’s 40 million acres of elk habitat that is also sage grouse habitat. This is a very important ecosystem for the interior west. It kind of defines the interior west. Our long-term goal is the preservation of the sage grouse and the habitat and we don’t care how we get there.”
Stein said the current effort to conserve the sage grouse on all levels is unprecedented.
“I’ve been watching this for two or three decades. This has been described as the largest conservation experiment in the history of the Endangered Species Act. There’s so much effort going into pre-listing conservation work from so many people. People recognize how these things can go wrong. The spotted owl is one species that the listing of caused a tremendous amount of heartache. We’d rather invest in conservation before we get to the point of making that call. It’s going to be more cost effective and effective.”
Van Liew said that landowners view it the same way — they’d rather work to keep it from being listed, than try to deal with the regulation an endangered species listing would bring. “You don’t want an endangered species on your property. The Endangered Species Act was written with good intentions, but it has become a negative incentive to have an endangered species on your property. You have to comply with the burdensome regulations if it’s listed.”
Stein said he can’t comment on what regulations might fall into place if the sage grouse were listed as threatened or endangered. Under the conditions of a court settlement in 2011, the U.S. FWS has until September of 2015 to make a decision about listing the sage grouse. The Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act would remove that deadline. ❖