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An unprecedented, collaborative effort

Yesterday morning, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to review efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse – a ground-dwelling bird whose habitat has shrunk by half over the past decades.  We’d like to share our perspective about what’s really at stake when we talk about the bird.

There are challenges in the iconic and unbroken sagebrush landscapes of the American West.  Increasingly intense fires, invasive species and development are fragmenting rangeland that ranchers and farmers have relied upon for generations. 

{mosads}Mule deer and elk are under pressure.  Pronghorn face even more perilous migrations.  In total, more than 350 species of wildlife depend on sagebrush habitat, but it is the decline of the greater sage-grouse that has become the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the deteriorating health of these Western lands. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to determine by the end of the fiscal year whether protection under the Endangered Species Act is necessary for the conservation of the greater sage-grouse.

We need to act – to stop the bird from sliding into extinction, but also to conserve this key landscape of the American West that is so critical to our nation’s outdoor heritage, food security and economic health.

That’s why the federal agencies are working hand in hand with states and other partners through voluntary, incentive-based conservation and comprehensive state and federal land management plans to conserve the greater sage-grouse and support traditional land uses and economic development. 

For example, more than 1,100 ranchers and partners have worked with NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative over the last five years to restore 4.4 million acres of habitat while maintaining working landscapes across the West.  Improving the health and productivity of the range can also benefit ranchers’ bottom lines.

The BLM and USFS will soon release plans for managing federal lands to ensure sage-grouse populations thrive, while allowing energy, grazing and other public land uses to continue. Across 11 states, federal and state governments and private landowners recognize that a healthy sagebrush landscape means a healthy western economy.  Working together, we are developing a comprehensive strategy with the protections necessary to conserve imperiled sagebrush habitat in the face of threats such as fire and invasive species.

And yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell – side-by-side Idaho Governor Otter – announced an innovative, long-term strategy to combat rangeland fires, one of the greatest threats to habitat in states like Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.   

We have seen what’s possible when we all pull our oars in the same direction.  Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that, due to local partnership-driven conservation efforts, the bi-state population of greater sage-grouse in California and Nevada does not require the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The bi-state is a tremendous conservation victory, and a testament to how the ESA works to bring people together to find solutions. The same science-based outcome is possible on greater sage-grouse if we can continue this unprecedented and collaborative conservation effort. 

Some have suggested delaying the BLM-USFS plans or the FWS decision as a solution. Aside from the serious impacts these efforts may have on the role of science and decades of public land management policy, the delays may create further uncertainty for everyone – private landowners and ranchers, public land managers, and businesses looking to expand their operations in the West.

What we want the public to know is that everyone can win if we stay the course. Let’s complete the journey together and get to a solution that will provide for healthy sage-grouse populations and a thriving Western way of life.​

Ashe is director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Kornze is director of the Bureau of Land Management; Tidwell is chief of the United States Forest Service; and Weller is chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Services.  

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