In the spring, sharp-tailed grouse form mating grounds, or leks, where they congregate to compete for territories and perform mating displays for visiting females. This crowded scene leads to fighting among the males as they attempt to outcompete one another and win the affections of the onlooking females.

An Obama-era conservation agreement that has seen ranchers, environmentalists, energy companies, and government agencies work cooperatively to protect the sage grouse is under review by the Trump administration. If overturned, the decision could dismantle a process that protected wildlife habitat while accommodating ranching and energy development while avoiding litigation, participants in the current agreement say.

Last week, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the Trump Administration would be revisiting the collaborative conservation approach to improve sage grouse habitat in 11 Western states.

Pat O’Toole, one of more than 1,500 ranchers who are part of the current cooperative plan to protect the sage grouse, said undoing the agreement would be a bad move for everyone involved.

“The sage grouse initiative, the collaboration, up to now it’s been working,” said O’Toole, owner of Ladder Ranch along the Wyoming and Colorado border.
“It’s the collaboration that’s the key. Everybody involved has been trying to prevent the whole sage grouse effort from the conflict and litigation that could from a listing” of the bird as an endangered species.

The sage grouse team involves ranchers along with the Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Forest Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, state agencies and non-governmental partners. The success of the collaboration, including its public-private partnership, led to the 2015 decision to invest in this approach rather than list the sage grouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Listing the grouse as endangered would trigger a more stringent set of regulations that limit landowner and public agency choices and could trigger litigation.

In making his announcement to review the sage-grouse agreement, Secretary Zinke said energy development would be a key factor.

“The team will be asked to identify plan provisions that may need to be adjusted or rescinded based on the potential for energy and other development on public lands,” Zinke said.

He also said any changes would be worked out “first and foremost in consultation with state and local governments, and in a manner that allows both wildlife and local economies to thrive.”

The two co-chairs of the federal-state sage grouse task force, Governors John Hickenlooper (Democrat) of Colorado and Matthew Mead (Republican) of Wyoming are not pleased with the review.

“We understand that you are considering … moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” they wrote in a letter to Zinke. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”

The sagebrush steppe is a broad region of the Intermountain West characterized by broad open grasslands, cattle ranches and wildlife habitat. Sage grouse currently reside in 186 million acres in parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, and North Dakota, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Three-quarters of the grouse inhabit just 27% of the area. Sage grouse conservation efforts focus on the riparian habitat that is most important to the species, as well as to preserving access to sagebrush for grouse diet.

O’Toole said he strives to strike a balance between conserving habitat for wildlife along with producing cattle and sheep. As a leader in conservation efforts for the region, O’Toole has taken numerous steps to improve habitat and manage livestock in a manner that supports a diversity of goals, including a focus on sage grouse.

“Working forward in a science-based capacity, on our ranch, we’ve been able to successfully increase numbers of grouse population. We’ve demonstrated that agriculture and grazing can be complementary and beneficial, not destructive, to sage grouse on our land.”

Conservation groups, too, are speaking out against Zinke’s decision. An outdoor group fears that undoing the agreement could lead to greater restrictions on hunting and fishing.
“This review could threaten to undermine the decision not to list the grouse as endangered,” said John Gale, conservation director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Now we’re facing a warranted [endangered species] listing, which would threaten the multiple use mandate and access to hunting and fishing on our public lands.”
Gale, a grouse hunter, said that the conservation efforts have had far reaching impacts on other species as well. “Sage grouse habitat conservation is critical for the grouse, and also for other key species. Removing invasive species and protecting riparian areas is positive for pronghorn, for mule deer, for elk, for other upland game birds in the sagegrass steppe ecosystem. There’s 350 species dependent on these conservation efforts.”

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers issued a report studying the potential impacts of fossil fuel development on sage grouse habitat on public lands. Conducted by Western EcoSystems Technology, the study looks in detail at sage grouse priority habitat management areas (PHMA). The study concludes that the current cooperative management plan does not place too many restrictions on energy development:

  • An overlap of only 4 percent exists between PHMA and existing coal and oil and gas leases on federal lands.
  • The majority of federal lands within the PHMA have zero to low potential for oil and gas, solar and wind energy development based on existing data sources. For oil and gas, approximately 79 percent of federal lands and minerals within the PHMA have zero to low development potential.
  • The majority of federal lands and minerals identified as medium or high development potential for oil and gas are located outside of the PHMA. For oil and gas, approximately 71 percent of all federal lands and minerals within the study area with assumed medium to high development potential are located outside of the PHMA.

Gale said the successful sage grouse conservation strategy is not in conflict with energy development. “Energy development is an appropriate and necessary use of our public lands, particularly in the West, yet it must be pursued responsibly and in the right places. Our report shows that the vast majority of greater sage grouse habitat is ill-suited to energy development of any kind, now or in the future – and that more than three-quarters of areas potentially suited to energy production located outside areas important to sage grouse.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Ed Arnett is concerned about other aspects of the review. “A fair and transparent review by a new Administration is credible, but we have some clear concerns,” Arnett said. “Secretary Zinke’s comments about captive breeding, for instance. For the sage grouse, it hasn’t worked. If you were to poll biologists, they would tell you that captive breeding is a last resort only to be used when everything else fails. The better approach is to stick with improving habitat and allowing the native population to increase over time. You can’t decouple wildlife populations from habitat conservation.”

It’s exactly these multiple uses and benefits that works for the Western economy, said Chris Saeger of the Western Values Project. “The current plans strike a balance between traditional resource development and the outdoor economy. Protecting sagebrush landscapes is about protecting jobs for people who work as outfitters and in the tourism industry. Right now, we can protect those jobs and pursue energy development on public lands thanks to the direction the last administration took on this issue.

“Secretary Zinke is opening a can of worms that will benefit oil and gas companies at the expense of outdoor industry jobs. It’s not the government’s jobs to pick winners and losers, but if Secretary Zinke gets his way, big oil will win, and the rest of us will lose.”

Saeger, and the Western Values Project, have found that the direct economic contribution of recreation in the sagebrush region was more than $1 billion in 2013 alone. That number has grown ever larger in 2017.

Conservation groups vow to monitor Secretary Zinke’s review of sage grouse habitat plans closely. Zinke’s order mandates a 60-day review period that will culminate in issuing a report that documents recommended changes. The workload is stacking up at the Department of Interior, also performing a comprehensive review of National Monuments and the Antiquities Act.

Back at Ladder Ranch, O’Toole said he is confused about the need for all the fuss.

“I never thought we were finished. The work of habitat restoration, of balancing the need for agriculture and food production, of energy production. That work is never done. It’s clear that sage grouse conservation is working to achieve its goals. We have to ask ourselves, are you looking for agendas or are you looking for solutions? There’s plenty of evidence to document the successes of the collaborative approach. We need to stick with what’s working, and improve things that aren’t.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.