Full implementation of conservation plans is crucial for legal defense of the listing decision and success of the bird
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced today that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. This decision comes after years of coordination and planning among federal, state, and local stakeholders to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation to continue.The BLM finalized a critical step toward achieving the not-warranted finding by signing two Records of Decision that will amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird.
Sportsmen’s groups are encouraged by the decision and appreciative of the 11 states, federal agencies, private landowners, and other vested stakeholders that have come together in a daunting, often controversial effort. “The work to benefit sage grouse over the last five years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times,” says Steve Williams, president of theWildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The collaboration we’ve seen is unprecedented and extraordinary. It sets forth a model for what I believe to be the future of conservation in America.”
For many of the groups involved in this effort, today’s announcement comes with a cautious sense of relief. “For years, sportsmen, ranchers, developers, and biologists have anxiously awaited the day when the sage grouse listing decision would be made,” says Steve Riley, president and CEO of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Now, it is imperative that these collective conservation efforts are implemented and monitored for effectiveness in the long-term if we are to avoid winding up with sage grouse again at risk further down the road.”
Sportsmen have argued that an “all-of-the-above approach”—with distinct plans developed and implemented by the federal, state, and private sectors—was the only way to get to a not-warranted decision and sustain conservation into the future. Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever notes that private landowner efforts, led in part by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, were a critical piece of the success leading to today’s decision. “Partnership-driven, voluntary conservation efforts have contributed to a positive decision for greater sage grouse and ranching communities in Western states, but our work has only just begun,” says Vincent. “We must continue to build upon this unprecedented level of management for sage grouse populations from federal and state agencies and the ranchers who are implementing landscape-level habitat improvements on private lands.”
The benefits of today’s decision, and the implementation of robust conservation plans already in progress, will extend to more than just sage grouse. “Thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator that sagebrush ecosystems are healthy, and this is important for more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many that are popular with sportsmen,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Now, we must remain invested in sustaining the health of this bird—and the landscapes that support it.” Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, notes that sportsmen and women will benefit as well. “What is good for the grouse is good for the grandeur—the large landscapes being conserved will help sustain backcountry hunting opportunities and big game populations,” he says. “That’s positive for sportsmen and the local communities that depend on proceeds from outdoor recreation-based businesses.”
The work of implementing conservation on the ground is just beginning, and threats still remain. “We’re happy with today’s decision, which proves that collaborative conservation can work,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But it is critical that state and federal agencies enforce the full implementation of their plans and that we continue to oppose Congressional attempts to weaken them.”
Management of sagebrush habitat is a long-term endeavor that costs money and resources, and no one understands that better than a former director of the agency responsible for today’s announcement. “Investment in sagebrush management that balances many uses of the land, including responsible energy development and sustainable ranching, with conservation is essential for our nation’s economy and the Western way of life,” says Williams. “We have the blueprint in place, and now it’s time to build our future. Congressional support and funding can help get us there.”
To see what our other partners are saying about today's announcement, click here and here.
Defenders of Wildlife: Landmark Decisions Fall Short of Conserving Sage-Grouse
Despite improvements, final plans inconsistent with government’s own “best available science” as listing is taken off the table
WASHINGTON, DC — Today Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced sweeping decisions with far-reaching consequences for the imperiled greater sage-grouse, the Sagebrush Sea and hundreds of fish and wildlife that depend on this vital landscape.
The Obama administration announced the conclusion of a four-year federal land use planning process designed to implement a National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, an unprecedented effort to improve the management of more than 60 million acres of the Sagebrush Sea. Today’s announcement involved the completion of final decision documents for 14 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service conservation plans for the sage-grouse, a species that occurs on millions of acres of public lands throughout the American West. The planning effort recognized the importance of conserving large expanses of sagebrush grasslands for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, designating tens of millions of acres as priority habitat on federal lands, including approximately 13 million acres of Sagebrush Focal Areas. Though the final plans will result in the general improvement in management of the covered lands, they failed to incorporate key prescriptions identified by the government’s own scientists as necessary for the long-term conservation and recovery of the grouse.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that the greater sage-grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a decision based largely on the final federal land use plans. Current advanced scientific understanding of the species, combined with the inadequacy of the plans to protect and restore the sage-grouse, undermines the Service’s decision not to list the bird under the ESA.
The following is a statement from Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife:
“We commend the administration’s unprecedented and epic land use planning process covering millions of acres of public lands throughout the American West, but the final plans fall short of what is necessary to eliminate known threats to the greater sage-grouse. While the final federal sage-grouse plans advance wildlife management on millions of acres of public lands, they failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat.
“Listing decisions under the ESA must be based upon the best available science and specific listing criteria, including the adequacy of regulatory mechanisms to address ongoing threats and support long-term conservation and recovery of imperiled species. In this case, the shortcomings of the federal sage-grouse conservation plans and a lack of regulatory certainty are contrary to and undermine the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the species no longer warrants protection under the ESA.”
“Westerners love their sage-grouse and, like the majority of Americans, support land management that does not sacrifice our rich fish and wildlife heritage for short-term profits from unsustainable land use and development. They also support decisive action to save the sage-grouse—including listing the bird under the ESA—to prevent the species from becoming extinct. The fate of the sage-grouse, and hundreds of other species, is linked to the future of the Sagebrush Sea. More still needs to be done to ensure the bird’s long-term survival on this fragile and vital landscape.”
The iconic greater sage-grouse once ranged across 297 million acres in North America and numbered as many as 16 million birds. Today, greater sage-grouse range has been reduced by nearly half and populations have experienced long-term declines. Sage-grouse require large expanses of healthy sagebrush steppe, an increasingly rare habitat in the West. Millions of acres of the Sagebrush Sea have been lost to agriculture and development over the past 200 years. What remains is fragmented and degraded by poorly managed oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined greater sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010, and committed to consider the bird for listing by this month. This date certain prompted federal agencies, states and counties to initiate a multitude of planning processes to implement new conservation measures to conserve sage-grouse on millions of acres in the west with the hope of averting the need to list the species. The shortcomings of the final plans coupled with recent demographic information and the latest research published by the U.S. Geological Survey on the plight of sage-grouse, are a blunt reminder that strong, science-based conservation measures—and listing under the Endangered Species Act are necessary at this time to protect the species.
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @defendersnews.
Western Watersheds Project: Greater Sage-grouse Denied Protection; Outlook for Iconic Bird is Bleak
Hailey, Idaho – In a double-whammy that will doom the sagebrush steppe and the iconic Greater sage-grouse to a dismal future, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced today the Obama Administration’s decision to rely on incomplete planning efforts to protect the bird, rather than the true safety net of the Endangered Species Act. In addition to the finding of “Not Warranted” for federal protection under the ESA, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service released Records of Decision for land use plans across the west that fall short of what even the government’s own scientists say is necessary to prevent the extinction of the species.
It is well known that greater sage-grouse populations have experienced significant declines, the birds’ range has contracted, and the remaining populations are increasingly fragmented. The results of the recent (August 2015) Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies report on sage-grouse population trends “support previous findings that have documented a long-term (1965-2015) decline of greater sage-grouse range-wide.”
“Clearly, with the continuing decline in sage-grouse numbers, this is not the time to back off protection,” said Dr. Michael Connor, California Director of Western Watersheds Project.
“The Secretary seemed determined to put a happy face on the future of the American West, and so she willfully ignored the hard decisions like limiting energy development, prohibiting transmission lines, and blocking spring cattle grazing,” said Travis Bruner, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “There is no ‘win’ here for sage-grouse. There is only a slighty slower trajectory towards extinction. If this is, as Jewell claims, ‘the future of conservation in America,' than the sage-grouse isn’t the only species that's in trouble.”
The “Not Warranted” determination is based in large part on the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service Resource Management Plans and Amendments that cover roughly half of the remaining sage-grouse habitat. But, unless they have changed significantly from the final proposals, none of these plans draw firm management parameters around livestock grazing, the most ubiquitous threat to the species across its range. All the plans defer changes to grazing to future decision-making, despite having clear scientific recommendations and court orders describing what must be done to protect the bird during critical stages of its life cycle.
“It’s obvious from Interior’s propaganda that they have not accurately identified the threat that livestock pose,” said Greta Anderson, Deputy Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Simply throwing money at the problem through the Sage Grouse Initiative is like putting an expensive bandage on a gaping chest wound. The failure here was to staunch the flow and limit livestock’s destructive impacts by significantly altering grazing management.”
Bruner added, “Secretary Jewell has been a failure at understanding the significance of intact and functional ecosystems and healthy biodiversity. She’s an adept businessperson and she’s figured out how to make extractive industries happy by doing as little as possible to ‘conserve’ what’s left of the sagebrush habitat. History will remember her unwillingness to stand up for true conservation.”
Mule Deer Foundation Applauds Sage Grouse Decision
Salt Lake City, Utah: The Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) applauded today’s announcement by the Department of the Interior that the greater sage-grouse is not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act. That decision, announced at a press event today at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, validates the years of hard work and collaborative conservation efforts by private landowners, non-profit organizations and federal and state agencies.
“We greatly appreciate this Administration’s decision that the greater sage-grouse will not be added to the endangered species list,” said Art Reese, a retired administrator of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and a member of the MDF board of directors. “The public/private conservation efforts to restore our sagebrush ecosystems across the West have been unprecedented and it is reassuring to know that those efforts were recognized and will continue to benefit all sagebrush dependent species.”
MDF has identified mule deer “conservation opportunity areas” where state biologists have identified the most immediate and pressing needs for mule deer conservation – nearly 17 million of those acres overlap with sage grouse priority areas of conservation. Because of these significant overlaps, MDF is working with the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and state and federal agencies to restore habitat in these important areas. Conservation efforts have included juniper removal and restoration of native grasses and forbs in the sagebrush community, particularly in those areas within mule deer winter range, movement corridors or areas that have been severely impacted by wildfires. MDF is also partnering with state fish and wildlife agencies in Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming on their Mule Deer Initiatives where mule deer habitats significantly overlap with both greater and Gunnison’s sage grouse. In addition, research released by SGI in March of 2015 shows that conservation efforts undertaken in Wyoming to protect sage grouse core areas will also protect important migratory corridors for deer.
“Thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator that sagebrush ecosystems are healthy, and this is important for more than 350 species of plants and animals. These sagebrush habitats are particularly important for our mule deer and the conservation efforts undertaken by the Sage Grouse Initiative, federal land management agencies, state fish and wildlife agencies, and hundreds of other partners are definitely making a difference,” noted Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “However our work is not done – we must ensure that all the conservation efforts that have been set in motion do not come to a screeching halt because the threat of an ESA listing is no longer hanging over our heads.”
Wyoming Governor Mead Praises Sage Grouse Decision
Governor Matt Mead praised the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) announcement today that the Greater sage-grouse will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Governor joined the Secretary of the Department of the Interior Sally Jewell and USFWS Director Dan Ashe for the announcement in Denver.
"I am pleased that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the right decision. This is the result of Wyoming and other Western states taking a proactive approach to the Greater sage-grouse - working with industry, agriculture and conservation groups and the federal government,” Governor Mead said. “Today’s decision recognizes Wyoming and other western states were successful. We can continue to create jobs and share our natural resources with the rest of the nation while the Greater sage-grouse thrives. I thank the Sage Grouse Implementation Team and the many others involved for their service and dedication to this important issue."
Wyoming has aggressively worked for more than a decade to prevent the sage-grouse from being listed. In July, Governor Mead updated an earlier Executive Order that protects core areas of grouse habitat.
"Many diverse interests worked together and this was the key to our success,” Governor Mead said. "This plan should serve as an example for other states that face challenges with the Endangered Species Act."
Department of the Interior: Historic Conservation Campaign Protects Greater Sage-Grouse
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines federal land management plans and partnerships with states, ranchers, and NGOs avert ESA listing by conserving America’s “Sagebrush Sea”
DENVER, CO – An unprecedented, landscape-scale conservation effort across the western United States has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat and enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to conclude that the charismatic rangeland bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This collaborative, science-based greater sage-grouse strategy is the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.
Secretary Jewell made the announcement earlier today on Twitter with a video that explains why the sage grouse decision is a historic and sets the groundwork for a 21st century approach to conservation.
The FWS reached this determination after evaluating the bird’s population status, along with the collective efforts by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage-grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173-million acre range. After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information and taking into account ongoing key conservation efforts and their projected benefits, the FWS has determined the bird does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future and therefore does not need protection under the ESA.
“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation – ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today. The epic conservation effort will benefit westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home, while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”
Jewell made the announcement at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge today alongside Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonnie, FWS Director Dan Ashe, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tom Tidwell, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller, and U.S. Geological Survey Acting Director Suzette Kimball.
“Today’s decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities. Through the comprehensive initiatives on both public and private lands, the partnership has made and will continue to make monumental strides in supporting the people and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush landscape.”
The FWS’s September 30, 2015 deadline to review the status of the species spurred numerous federal agencies, the 11 states in the range, and dozens of public and private partners to undertake an extraordinary campaign to protect, restore and enhance important sage-grouse habitat to preclude the need to list the species. This effort featured: new management direction for BLM and Forest Service land use plans that place greater emphasis on conserving sage-grouse habitat; development of state sage-grouse management plans; voluntary, multi-partner private lands effort to protect millions of acres of habitat on ranches and rangelands across the West; unprecedented collaboration with federal, state and private sector scientists; and a comprehensive strategy to fight rangeland fires.
“We’ve written an important chapter in sage-grouse conservation, but the story is far from over,” said Director Ashe. “By building on the partnerships we’ve forged and continuing conservation efforts under the federal and state plans, we will reap dividends for sage-grouse, big game and other wildlife while protecting a way of life in the West. That commitment will ensure that our children and grandchildren will inherit the many benefits that this rich but imperiled landscape has to offer.”
The BLM and USFS today announced that they have issued Records of Decisions finalizing the 98 land use plans that will help conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development on portions of public lands in 10 states across the West. The land use plans were developed during over a multi-year process in partnership with the states and local partners, guided by the best available science and technical advice from the FWS. The BLM and USFS also initiated today the public comment process associated with their proposal to withdraw a subset of lands that are sage-grouse strongholds from future mining claims. More information on the plans is available here . More information on the proposed mineral withdrawal is available here.
The future of the sage-grouse depends on the successful implementation of the federal and state management plans and the actions of private landowners, as well as a continuing focus on reducing invasive grasses and controlling rangeland fire. The FWS has committed to monitoring all of the continuing efforts and population trends, as well as to reevaluating the status of the species in five years.
The greater sage-grouse is an umbrella species, emblematic of the health of sagebrush habitat it shares with more than 350 other kinds of wildlife, including world-class populations of mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and golden eagles. In 2010, the Service determined that the greater sage-grouse warranted ESA protection because of population declines caused by loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat, coupled with a lack of regulatory mechanisms to control habitat loss. However, the need to address higher-priority listing actions precluded the Service from taking action to list the bird. Since that time, actions from state, federal and private partners have added needed protections, increasing certainty that this important habitat will be protected.
Roughly half of the sage-grouse’s habitat is on federal lands, most of it managed by the BLM and USFS. These tend to be drier uplands where the birds mate, nest and spend fall and winter. While the federal plans differ in specifics to reflect local landscapes, threats and conservation approaches, their overall goal is to prevent further degradation of the best remaining sage-grouse habitat, minimize disturbance where possible and mitigate unavoidable impacts by protecting and improving similar habitat.
About 45 percent of the grouse’s habitat is on state and private lands, which often include the wetter meadows and riparian habitat that are essential for young chicks. Efforts by private landowners in undertaking voluntary sage-grouse conservation have been an important element in the campaign. While private lands programs differ, each works with ranchers, landowners and other partners on long-term agreements to undertake proactive conservation measures that benefit sage-grouse.
Through the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, more than 1,100 ranchers have restored or conserved approximately 4.4 million acres of key habitat. Through the recently-announced SGI 2.0 strategy, USDA expects voluntary, private land conservation efforts to reach 8 million acres by 2018. On private and federal lands, the FWS and BLM have received commitments on 5.5 million acres through Candidate Conservation Agreements. Many of these projects also improve grazing and water supplies for ranchers, benefitting cattle herds and the long-term future of ranching in the West.
States in the sage-grouse’s range have been engaged in this collaborative process. For example, Wyoming has been implementing its “core area” strategy for over five years. Montana has committed to implement a similar plan that would set standards for managing private and state lands to meet sage-grouse conservation goals. Similarly, Oregon has adopted an “all lands” strategy for greater sage-grouse conservation. Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho have also developed strategies to improve state and private land management to benefit the sage-grouse.
Greater sage-grouse once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West. Early European settlers reported seeing millions of birds take to the skies. But the bird, known for its flamboyant mating ritual, has lost almost half of its habitat since then.
Despite losses, sage-grouse populations are still relatively large and well-distributed across the range. The FWS anticipates that some sage-grouse populations may continue to decline in parts of the range, as conservation efforts begin to take effect. Other populations appear to be rebounding as they enter a rising period in their decadal population cycle, which can fluctuate by as much 30 to 40 percent. The FWS has found conservation measures will slow and then stabilize the loss of habitat across the range, securing the species success into the future.
For more information about the greater sage-grouse and this decision, including reports, maps, myths and facts and Secretary’s Jewell’s video announcing the USFWS decision, please see www.doi.gov/sagegrouse.