The Sage-Grouse’s Next Dance | What the Recent Decision Means for the Bird and Conservation

October 6, 2015

This op-ed first appeared on the Cool Green Science Blog and was written by Holly Copeland, a Spatial Scientist/Landscape Ecologist with the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

The first text came in at 5:02am, from my brother in-law in Texas:

“So what is your take on the sage-grouse ruling?”

Similar texts and calls followed from other friends and relatives.

Why all the early morning interest in a bird? Because that Tuesday, September 22, the Department of Interior announced they would not be listing the Greater Sage-Grouse, a bird native to America’s sagebrush country, as an endangered species.

The day of the announcement was a strange one. This beautiful dancing bird has been in my thoughts almost daily for the past nine years, as it has also been for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other scientists who are working on sage-grouse.  But suddenly, because of all the national new coverage, this species was now in the consciousness of many other Americans, too.

So my response to their questions whether it was a good sage-grouse decision: in short, yes. But, of course, there are caveats and subtleties.

Make no mistake sagebrush country is in great peril. The scientific weight of evidence is overwhelming.  Sage-grouse numbers are a tiny fraction of historical counts, and populations of other species that live in this habitat, such as mule deer, pronghorn, and pygmy rabbits, are down as well. These numbers are low because the entire system is slowly converting to one overrun by invasive species, rampant wildfire, and little refuge from the presence of humans.

The peril to the sagebrush isn’t just energy development or ranchers or urban sprawl. It’s all of us using the sagebrush ecosystem— the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts.” We’ve made it our home, played in it, drilled it, grazed it, allowed invasive species to proliferate, and not paid enough attention to the consequences.

Running through the sagebrush just this morning, I passed through a patch of cheatgrass, a flammable non-native grass that has invaded native sagebrush stands throughout the West. This kind of place, a flat opening in the sagebrush, may very well have been a lek site forty years ago, but was abandoned when cheatgrass and residential development encroached (a lek is a breeding area where male grouse dance and parade to attract female partners). Cheatgrass is terribly pernicious. Once it dominates a sagebrush patch it sets up an unnatural fire cycle that makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to restore sagebrush back to its native condition.

A non-native grass, cheatgrass is harming sage-grouse by making its habitat much more flammable.

A non-native grass, cheatgrass is harming sage-grouse by making its habitat much more flammable.

On the heels of these building challenges, eight years ago we began an attempt to heal these cuts through the largest landscape-scale conservation effort in US history, spurred by the threat of an endangered species listing for sage-grouse.

Western states responded by crafting plans to conserve sage-grouse. For years these plans were drafted and revised. There were countless meetings. Scientists debated buffers, thresholds to disturbance, and indirect effects such as noise; they published a massive number of studies on everything from how much development grouse can tolerate to how far they migrate to wintering areas. Someone even made a robot grouse.

Initiatives like the Natural Resource Conservation Service-led Sage Grouse Initiative launched efforts to increase the health of the sagebrush ecosystem by enrolling ranchers in programs to increase the sustainability of their ranching operations and benefit grouse, made new funds available for voluntary conservation easements, and supported research to understand the benefits of these actions.

At the heart of this effort was collaboration – a coming together of citizens and scientists from industry, government, non-profit, and the private sectors.

The Department of Interior’s decision of “not warranted” for greater sage-grouse is right not because the sagebrush system doesn’t need our help. Quite the opposite – truly in the next few decades we could lose this ecosystem to cheatgrass, fire, and development.

But the decision is right because collaborative conservation is the only strategy likely to work. We desperately need an all-hands-on-deck approach where those who work with these lands daily – largely ranchers and federal land managers – are critical partners that understand the danger, believe that they can succeed, and have backing at the highest levels of government to make decisions that support sagebrush health.

CO_Not Warranted_Dave Naugle

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spoke on September 22 at the event announcing the sage grouse would not be listed.

At the announcement Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell suggested the “epic collaborations” of the sage-grouse efforts represent a new model for conservation in America. I agree.

While I can find gaps and weaknesses in these plans, I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This is a favorite saying of my friend Paul Hansen, who was a conservation champion of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s—an era when we seemed to know how to do collaborative conservation better. Maybe we took another step in that direction this past week.

And so now begins the next chapter in this saga: taking action to implement all the plans, securing full funding from Congress to support these actions, and following up on our progress.

The “not warranted” decision for sage-grouse was based in part upon the Bureau of Land Management, other federal agencies, and states being able to take action to implement protections written in the sagebrush habitat conservation plans they submitted previously. If they can’t implement these measures because Congress prevents them or doesn’t provide the proper funding, then this whole process of science, sweat, and tears will have been for naught. At that point the Department of Interior would then almost certainly have to list the sage-grouse as endangered, and prescriptive limits would necessarily be placed on both federal and private lands to protect sage-grouse.

Lastly, monitoring is critical.  Scientists who previously studied what sage-grouse need to survive will now have to monitor sage-grouse populations to determine whether or not the actions put in place are working.

And so we begin a new phase in the unfolding sage-grouse story— rest assured we scientists will be looking to track and monitor their numbers.  But we are counting on a collective vision of restored health for the sagebrush ecosystem, and security for the treasured wildlife it harbors.  Nothing short of that will save this bird in the heart of the American West.

Click here to read this on the Cool Green Science blog.

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.