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.

Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. For more information about our editorial policy and legal terms of use, see our About This Blog page.

(Image: Greater Sage-Grouse. Credit: Joe Kiesecker/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. This dilemma illustrates once again how our system is rotten to the core. How is it that reducing CO2 emissions and conserving a species can be at odds? It’s about what we’ve been taught to value in an economy/society which values dog eat dog and shift the costs to the environment/offshore/poor. It’s about living in a market which values profit over reciprocity with nature.

    We’re all trained like drones by the mass media/mass marketing system to accept that all that we need is obtainable in junk sold to us so that others can accumulate the money to buy more junk.

    Every single need of humans and the environment which we share and are a part of is subservient to the demand that we all have stuff that will never satisfy our basic needs. To make sure that we don’t worry too much about all this, most humans spend their spare time using one drug or another to find “happiness”.

    Everything which will satisfy our basic needs – emotional/physical connection, family, community, environment is swept aside, devalued and ignored by a system which feeds the idea that obtaining the wealth to purchase stuff is the only thing of value.

    This is what is killing our world and this is what is killing us. We need to adopt a whole new social outlook, a whole new way of engaging with each other and this Earth: based on Fair Share for the environment, community, families and the individual – in that order.

    We need to build in Fair Share and Reciprocity With Nature as underlying principles in how we structure our societies. It will influence where and how we find goods, what is truly of value, how we structure our communities, how we build our homes, how we feed ourselves, how we heal ourselves, how we educate ourselves and much more. We must find a way to junk the system which treats everything like garbage except the pursuit of “stuff” as the measure of “success” and “happiness”.

  2. My daughter is working with BLM on this sage grouse research in south eastern Oregon. How we manage the land….between recreational use, open rangeland, fire management, and new energy options….is crucial to not only the sage grouse but our own survival. Just as there were many factors in the salmon’s decline, between the dams, irrigation practices, logging methods, etc. so it is hopefully with foresight that we proceed wisely in protecting ecosystems in sagebrush country. The Nature Conservancy is by far the best green organization to donate to!!! I am concerned about the coral reefs and plastic pollution in oceans. Equally, infestations of pine trees in Colorado and decline of aspens are also worrisome, as the forest and trees are the lungs of the earth. As the trees take in our carbon dioxide and release oxygen essential to life on earth.

Add a Comment