For the Birds | TSLN.com

For the Birds

Maria Tussing
Assistant Editor

The saying goes, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." With the announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the sage grouse does not warrant an endangered species listing, many are breathing a sigh of relief that the bird is finally in the hand.

But some are skeptical.

The announcement was made at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical weapons manufacturing plant turned USFWS wildlife refuge with a view of the Denver skyline. Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association and Patrick O'Toole, a cattle and sheep rancher on the Wyoming/Colorado border, attended the invitation-only event.

"I heard a lot of speech making and a lot of back-patting. It's momentous in the sense that it's an example of how the ESA (Endangered Species Act) ought to work. That it motivates private efforts to recover species rather than driving regulation to list species. In that sense it's a great accomplishment," Magagna said.

“The land-use plans leave it a little too open to interpretation. It’s much improved, but I think there’s still a lot of room for interpretation, which happens in the implementation phase. The Forest Service said they’ll take about a three-year time period to implement their changes. They said they want to work with everyone and make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t have major negative impacts.” Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association

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O'Toole, whose family has done extensive work for numerous conservation issues, including sage grouse, said, "A lot of people feel like yesterday was a great day. But there are lots of challenges in the future. We're trying to figure out how we can work together through these partnerships. It's a better way than fighting and litigation."

Sarah Haymaker, the communications team lead at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said, "We're absolutely pleased. This is a win for the ranchers, a win for the bird. What's good for the bird is good for the herd. This is definitely a big win for agriculture and wildlife alike."

The NRCS and numerous other partners, both public and private, have been working together for more than 10 years on a plan that would allow for continued land use by those who depend on natural resources, but would also address the concerns about loss of sage grouse habitat and dropping sage grouse numbers.

The USDA, through NRCS, recently demonstrated its continued commitment to sage grouse conservation with Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0. The Sage Grouse Initiative was a voluntary, incentive-based program that encouraged landowners to put into action practices that would benefit sage grouse. A few weeks ago the program was renewed in its 2.0 form, promising another $211 million with a goal of protecting and enhancing a total 8 million acres of sage grouse habitat through 2018 with the initiative. In the first five years of the program, more than 1,100 ranchers in 11 states participated.

"Their work on private lands to connect fragmented habitat and improve rangeland had a large contribution to the no-list itself," Haymaker said.

Tim Griffiths, coordinator of Western Regional Working Lands for Wildlife, a division of NRCS, said, "We remain firmly committed to conserving sage grouse, western rangelands and rural ways of life. Our heads are down, our feet are on the accelerator, we're in this for the long haul."

While the official listing indicates the bird's population—and the efforts to keep it that way—is sufficient to not require a federal ESA listing, the accompanying amendments to 98 land-use plans (also referred to as "records of decision") are still causing concern. The land-use plans are the guidelines federal agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, use to manage the public property they administer.

The amendments to the plans are the guidelines each agency must follow in each state to continue conservation efforts for the sage grouse.

"The land use plans leave it a little too open to interpretation," Magagna said. He said Wyoming governor Matt Mead's staff was working with the USFWS on the land use plans to make them more favorable to grazing. "It's much improved, but I think there's still a lot of room for interpretation, which happens in the implementation phase. The Forest Service said they'll take about a three-year time period to implement their changes. They said the want to work with everyone and make sure it's done in a way that doesn't have major negative impacts. They're well-intentioned, but the pressure from the other side will come to bear and that's what makes this difficult."

Wyoming's representative Cyntia Lummis said, "The work Wyoming has done has been extensive, expensive and successful. Because of that I'm pleased the USFWS saw fit to recognize our efforts and their success.

"The flip side and the concern about the decision is the number of records of decision that affect a variety of states, some being so onerous that their members of congress are calling it a de facto listing and a land grab."

Lummis said the Nevada, Utah and Idaho congressional delegation are most concerned because of the stipulations spelled out in the management documents, especially those calling for the withdrawal of millions more acres from mineral use and more limitations on surface use.

Lummis said Wyoming fared better—at least at first glance–partly because of all the money and effort they've put into the sage grouse conservation projects prior to the decision. "We're also going to have to make sure that Wyoming's record of decision, which looks good on paper, will be implemented in a way that does not restrict us in a way that we believe is unnecessary."

Wyoming may have had the most aggressive conservation plan of any of the 11 states involved. With an estimated 37 percent of the sage grouse's population calling the cowboy state home—more than any other state–they also had the most at stake if the bird had been listed.

Lummis said she hasn't heard of any legal challenges to the decision–yet. "It would not surprise me if they [environmental groups] were not to pick through these land use plans looking for areas where they feel the bird is not adequately protected," she said. "That's sort of their method of operating. If you look at the Wyoming wolf, the USFWS crossed all their t's, dotted all their i's, used sound science, determiened the wolf should be delisted, did delist it. The environmental groups came in, found a friendly judge and sued to get it back on the list. These things doen't seem to ever end.

"Because they never end, policymakers in the state have gotten pretty cynical about the ESA itself because if there's just no way and no amount of effort in conservation is good enough to appease these environmental groups, then the [Endangered Species] Act is broken."

While the no-list decision is widely greeted in Wyoming with a sigh of relief, Lummis said she sympathizes with people from states that were more affected by the land-use plan amendments. "I will be listening to members of congress who are dissatisfied with amendments to the land use plans and try to understand from their perspective whether additional policy coming from congress is warranted."