Sage Grouse Decision Reflects New Approach To Endangered Species Protection

Sep 22, 2015

Monday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made a major announcement. Because of unprecedented effort by dozens of partners in 11 western states, she said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had determined that the greater sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

The long-awaited decision affects nearly every Western state, including northeastern California and more than 10 million acres in Oregon. JPR’s Liam Moriarty spoke with OPB's Central Oregon reporter Amanda Peacher, who’s been following the story. 

Liam Moriarty: Amanda, thanks for being here on JPR.

Amanda Peacher: Happy to be here.

LM: First of all, can you talk a little about the sage grouse and explain why this decision is such a big deal? 

AP: Sage grouse are a chicken-sized bird that need broad expanses of intact sagebrush habitat to survive. They're known for their bizarre and fascinating mating dance. These birds are what biologists refer to as "umbrella species," so they’re kind of a signal of ecological health across their entire habitat span.

Historically there were millions across the entire western US. Today, the US Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 grouse remaining. There’s about 26,000 in Oregon. 

They’re affected by a number of human impacts, including livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, fires, and especially here in Oregon, juniper encroachment.

An endangered species designation would have come with some sweeping restrictions for land users including ranchers, the oil and gas industry, and other human activities. 

The decision not to list means that the Obama Administration believes that conservation of the grouse can occur without those broader rules and restrictions. 

LM: OK, so how was Oregon involved in this whole process? 

AP: Each of the 11 states involved developed a conservation plan for the grouse, including Oregon. The state's plan focuses on rangeland improvements like taking out invasive juniper trees and cheatgrass. 

Governor Kate Brown called the non-listing decision a "win-win":  

Kate Brown: "Oregon is one of the states that led the way to this decision, and we did it by working together. We created new rules that ensure that future land use and economic development is consistent with the conservation of the sage grouse." 

Many of Oregon's leaders point to the voluntary conservation agreements signed on by ranchers as a signal of the success of the program.  

Jerome Rosa is with the Oregon's Cattlemen Association. He says that ranchers have been working voluntarily to improve grouse habitat in part because those improvements benefit cattle, too. 

Jerome Rosa: It wasn't just cattlemen that didn't want to see the sage grouse listed. But there was many other conservation and environmental groups that didn't want to see the sage grouse listed. And the idea was to improve the habitat out there for sage grouse. 

In Oregon, the main use of sage grouse habitat is grazing. That's a little different than in other states where oil and gas drilling are also factors. 

LM: Now, the whole point of the exercise here was to get voluntary agreements to do habitat conservation so it wouldn’t be necessary to actually list them, which would bring down all these endangered species restrictions. So, how are environmental groups taking the decision not to list? 

AP: Many conservation groups have been actually pretty involved in those  collaborative efforts, so they’re cheering the decision. They feel that the plans on the ground are sufficient to protect the bird. 

But I did speak with Randi Spivak. She’s with the Center for Biological Diversity. She was still reviewing the final conservation plans when I spoke to her. But she says based on earlier versions of the government's plan, without the protections of an ESA listing, sage grouse could still be in a lot of trouble. 

Randi Spivak: “In general, the plans do not address or recognize the threat that livestock is to sage grouse, including in Oregon.” 

Spivak also said that in general the plans don't follow science and will not go far enough to restore sage grouse populations. 

LM: Did your source at the Center for Biological Diversity suggest that they might sue if they felt as though the voluntary plans were not adequate to save the sage grouse?

AP: She said they was definitely on the table. Her group is going to review the full decision and make a call, probably later this week.  

LM: OK, Amanda, thanks for talking with us today.

AP: You’re welcome.

LM: Amanda Peacher covers central Oregon for OPB. I’m Liam Moriarty