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Big decision on sage-grouse looms over National Wildlife Day

Today is National Wildlife Day, but the only species I have on my mind is a strange looking bird: the greater sage-grouse. 

That’s because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether or not the greater sage-grouse requires protection under the Endangered Species Act. Either way it falls, the decision will be momentous, as it will not only decide the fate of one bird, but also the future of agriculture and energy: two of our country’s largest economic drivers.  

{mosads}The range of the greater sage-grouse extends across the vast majority of the Intermountain West, where roads, fences, farms, pump jacks, power lines and other indicators of growth pose threats to the bird, and vice versa. But decisions under the Endangered Species Act are based on science, not economics.  

Late last year, Congress threw a curveball by preventing the service from writing a decision to list the greater sage-grouse in a clear attempt to protect industry. But that prohibition would not block a “not warranted” decision – one that would keep the bird off the Endangered Species List.

Even if the service decides that the greater sage-grouse does not require federal protection, land owners, ranchers and government officials should not be complacent.  

Sage-grouse are indicators of healthy, intact sagebrush habitat. More than 350 other species rely on this habitat, including pronghorns and songbirds, and ranchers rely on this habitat for cattle operations. So we should all be invested in assuring the long-term sustainability of this habitat, both for the economy and the environment. 

Recent survey results from this past spring indicate that populations rebounded somewhat in 2015, following steep declines in previous years. Despite these results, populations of greater sage-grouse are still only a fraction of historic levels, and the bird continues to be threatened by catastrophic fire, infrastructure development, invasive species and a variety of other factors. Just this month, a major fire in Idaho wiped out over 250,000 acres of important sage-grouse habitat. 

I am thrilled to see that sage-grouse numbers are climbing, even if modestly, but I encourage state governments and federal agencies, conservation groups, landowners and industry to maintain the high level of time and dollar investments being made in greater sage-grouse conservation.  

We must remember that the greater sage-grouse has been in decline for decades, and security for the species will only come after many decades of recovery efforts. Nothing is going to change overnight. But there are actions we can take to help accelerate the timeline for recovery.  

For one, strategies for enhancing wildlife habitat in the sagebrush steppe exist that have yet to be launched.

Environmental Defense Fund has been working with agriculture, industry and academic partners for over two years to develop habitat exchanges, a program that allows ranchers to earn new revenue for protecting sage-grouse habitat. Colorado is slated to launch its version of a habitat exchange by the end of 2015. Nevada is currently beta testing its version of the exchange, which is the preferred mitigation option in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) plan for the state. A citizen group in Wyoming has developed its own habitat exchange proposal and has already hired an administrator to manage the exchange as soon as it is approved.  

All of these exchanges require formal approval by federal agencies, which I hope will come quickly so that this promising approach can ward off continued, imminent threats to the species as soon and as much as possible. 

Historically, the Endangered Species Act has been one of the strongest drivers of required mitigation in America, so if the Service determines that a listing is not warranted, it will be left to the states and BLM to drive strong mitigation through robust programs like habitat exchanges. This is the only way we can ensure that the species thrives and stays off the Endangered Species List, now and in the future.

Complacency and overconfidence will not help the sage grouse at this time. It may even be self-defeating for advocates of a “not warranted” decision. This is the time to push the pedal to the metal and continue to advance every effort to grow bird populations. We can’t fall just short of the finish line.

Holst is associate vice president of Environmental Defense Fund’s working lands program, where he oversees development of habitat exchanges. Habitat exchanges are a new program being designed to create conservation incentives that work for people, wildlife and the economy.


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