Feds didn't strike right balance in sage grouse decision

In a much-awaited decision, the Interior Department announced that the greater sage grouse, a chicken-like bird, would not be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The decision came as welcome news for landowners and businesses across the sage grouse’s 165 million-acre range spanning 11 Western states.

When a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, landowners can face steep fines, penalties and land use controls that can devalue their properties. These heavy-handed regulations create strong incentives for landowners to try to avoid falling under the Endangered Species Act’s control. For example, as ranchers in Colorado awaited the sage grouse decision, some reportedly used herbicides to destroy the sage grouse’s primary habitat, sagebrush, to reduce the possibility of regulations on their lands if the bird was listed as endangered this month.

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Normally, the news that the bird wasn’t going to be listed as endangered would have been cause for celebration in many corners. Over the past several years, states, counties, environmental groups, energy companies and private landowners have partnered to protect the sage grouse. Determining that the bird didn’t need to be listed is a testament to the success of those cooperative efforts.  But as The Hill reported, the reaction was more mixed, with Rep. Rob BishopRob BishopEndangered species rule changed, angering environmental group Overnight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning Overnight Regulation: Republicans blast agencies' climate reviews MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, telling The Hill in a statement. “Do not be fooled. The announcement not to list the sage-grouse is a cynical ploy…With the stroke of a pen, the Obama Administration’s oppressive land management plan is the same as a listing.”

“This is not a win for Nevada,” said Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Senate lays groundwork for spending deal GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE (R-Nev.). “At the end of the day, big government continues to tighten its grip at the expense of rural America’s future, especially in Nevada.”

That reaction stems, in part, from the Records of Decision on land use plan amendments issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service as part of the sage grouse announcement. The plans, expected to be signed in the next few days, govern the use of over 60 million acres of federal sage grouse habitat, which will now face restrictions aimed at protecting sage grouse habitat, creating buffer zones around the habitat, and will be monitored by BLM.

While the sage grouse is typically thought of as a “federal lands” species, because 64 percent of its habitat is on federal land, private lands are just as important. Upwards of 80 percent of the wetland habitat that sage grouse, and especially chicks and hens, depend on during summer months is privately owned. Without this wetland habitat, sage grouse chicks would face much higher mortality and the overall population would suffer.

“How do you conserve grouse that split their time between private and public lands?” asked Patrick Donnelly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and lead investigator of a groundbreaking study on sage grouse habitat. “With 81 percent of sparse summer habitat in private ownership, sage grouse success is inextricably linked to ranching and farming in the West.”

The worst way to conserve the sage grouse, or most wildlife for that matter, is to make it a liability for landowners. In a protest filing, Utah worried that the federal plan might encourage habitat destruction: “The failure of a national strategy to recognize sage-grouse dependence on private lands may result in regulations which ultimately increase sage-grouse habitat loss and fragmentation on private lands if landowners are forced to intensify management actions to offset lost revenues from public land grazing allotments.”

Over the past decade, the diverse coalition of states, counties, landowners, universities, energy companies, conservation groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sage Grouse Initiative have charted a highly successful path based on voluntary partnerships, incentives and integrating public and private lands. The result has been a coherent, holistic approach protecting the sage grouse and property rights. The federal government did the right thing deciding against listing the sage grouse as endangered. But if the government's future plans rely too heavily on penalty-based approaches it risks pushing states and private landowners away from the course that has been so successful for the sage grouse.

Seasholes is director of the endangered species program at Reason Foundation and author of the new report "Sage Grouse Conservation: The Proven Successful Approach."