Joseph Kiesecker is lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s North America Conservation Region
To list or not to list as protected? That is the question for the greater sage-grouse. And which way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ultimately answers this question about the status of this bird will impact not just its future but also economic and conservation opportunities across vast areas of the United States — including lands critical to meet the country’s renewable energy goals.
The USFWS last week announced that protected status for the greater sage grouse is “warranted but precluded.” The decision means that the species could be listed, but because there are currently so many candidate species, the USFWS is unable to do so at this time.
The USFWS also believes sufficient actions will be taken to stop species decline and initiate recovery. This decision gives the USFWS time to monitor the species and recovery actions more closely to see if an endangered species listing is necessary.
A decision to list sage-grouse is not one that can be taken lightly. The bird’s original range has been cut in half and proactive conservation measures to assure the future of greater sage-grouse will have far-reaching benefits to other species that also prefer sagebrush ecosystems, including songbirds and the Western United States’ world-class populations of big game.
Listing greater sage-grouse will require the implementation of land use-restrictions that will impact both economic and conservation opportunities. For instance:
- The great majority of the greater sage-grouse populations in the United States are found on public land; mostly managed by the Bureau of Land Management. These lands will be critical to meet renewable energy goals necessary to reduce carbon emissions — an essential component of 21st century conservation.
- Many of these lands are part of the gorgeous natural landscapes of the western United States that visitors travel from throughout the world to marvel at.
- And these lands are also critical to maintaining the West’s working landscapes — the ranching lifestyle that provides so much of the region’s history, culture and identity is rooted in sagebrush ecosystems.
Restrictions associated with listing will curtail all these activities and create conflicts over land use.
The USFWS decision will provide the opportunity to think proactively about land-use changes and how they might impact greater sage-grouse populations. Understanding the various impacts to greater sage-grouse habitat is crucial to their protection.
The Nature Conservancy’s approach to integrating conservation goals into development offers a solution to these apparent trade-offs. In areas where competing land uses threaten the bird, the Conservancy’s Energy by Design concept enlists a science-based approach that benefits people and nature, business and conservation.
At its core, this program reduces conflicts by steering development away from priority conservation areas; increasing the cost-effectiveness of mitigation by directing funding to higher-value conservation.
For instance, using our Energy by Design framework, Conservancy scientists recently published a study examining oil and gas development potential in the intermountain West and that development’s potential impact on greater sage-grouse populations. Our results indicate that sage-grouse populations could decline by between 7 percent and 19 percent in these areas if more forward-thinking development strategies are not considered.
Our study illustrates how impacts to sensitive species such as the sage-grouse can be used to forecast biological trade-offs of newly proposed or ongoing development plans. (Read more about the Conservancy’s work with partners regarding Wyoming’s sagebrush ecosystem, where more than half of the world’s remaining greater sage-grouse population lives.)
Strong science is imperative. Listing decisions are always contentious and will need to be supported by decisions rooted in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Linking wildlife impacts with predictive modeling affords decisionmakers the ability to evaluate trade-offs between development scenarios before policy decisions are implemented.
The recent listing decision provides the time needed to carefully examine the consequences of land use change and guide the USFWS in its all-important decision to list or not to list.
(Image: Greater Sage-Grouse. Credit: Joe Kiesecker/TNC.)