Sage grouse lawsuits may be just the beginning

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RBC I Last month’s long-awaited decision about the greater sage grouse – that it does not need Endangered Species Act protections – was no surprise to anyone who’s been following the bird’s saga. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service was looking for every reason possible to avoid putting the wide-ranging bird on the ESA list because of the potential impact a listing would have on energy production and development across huge swaths of the West.
Hardline environmental groups were dismayed.

For example, here’s the Center for Biological Diversity’s Randi Spivak: “Greater sage grouse have been in precipitous decline for years and deserve better than what they’re getting from the Obama administration.” The CBD is considering its legal options, Spivak told Greenwire, and groups like Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians are as well (most of the mainstream green groups, with a few exceptions like Defenders of Wildlife, are applauding the call).
Ironically, though, the hardline groups are partly responsible for the decision they’ll be seeking to overturn. If it hadn’t been for the pressure of a deadline created by an environmental group’s lawsuit, it’s not likely that sage grouse conservation efforts would have ever been strengthened enough to circumvent a listing.
Instead, things would have gone along as they did before the court-ordered deadline – some state-level planning, a few collaborative efforts, weak attempts at protecting sage grouse habitat on public land.
Grouse conservation first began to pick up steam in the late 1990s, when state biologists noted declining populations. Mark Salvo, now of Defenders of Wildlife, was instrumental in first petitioning for the grouse’s protection under the ESA. That petition helped force the Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the bird’s status in 2005, determining that it didn’t need federal protection.
But that decision was tainted by political meddling, and Fish and Wildlife had to give it a do-over. The result was that the grouse took a seat in the endangered species waiting room.
It took another lawsuit, this time filed by WildEarth Guardians, to force Fish and Wildlife to set the September 2015 deadline for getting the bird out of the waiting room: either by listing it or declaring it no longer needed protection. With the looming possibility of federal protection and all its attendant restrictions, collaborative conservation kicked into high gear.
The subsequent five years of intense efforts and unlikely partnerships are what led the Department of Interior to announce that the sage grouse doesn’t require federal intervention.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the run-up “the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the USA, even the world.”
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead,” Jewell continued. “In the weeks, months and years ahead, we need to implement the state and federal plans and the rangeland fire strategy, learning what’s working, incorporating science into decisions and staying committed to what’s right for sage grouse.”
Detractors, too, see the feds’ work cut out for them. Especially on the “science” part.
A major justification for the non-listing decision was the release of final Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service plans for managing sage grouse habitat across 67 million acres, widely praised for their rigor.
But some environmental groups charge that those plans ignore the agencies’ own scientific recommendations for conserving the bird and its habitat.
Enviros won’t be the only ones filing lawsuits.
The federal land management plans are sure to be challenged by the oil and gas industry as well, for placing too many restrictions on where and when it can operate.
And some Western states are threatening litigation over those plans as well.
Meanwhile, as the court cases grind along, the possibility of a future listing if the bird continues to decline should motivate ongoing conservation efforts.
“Losses will continue but at declining rates, compared to the historical average,” said Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe. “We must sustain efforts and implement plans or we will find ourselves reconsidering.”

Jodi Pederson is a senior editor at High Country News.