Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made the formal announcement on Tuesday, Sept. 22 that the Western Greater Sage Grouse would not be listed as an endangered species thanks to an unprecedented, historic collaborative campaign to restore and preserve the threatened bird’s habitat.
The announcement was a huge victory for years of work by state and federal agencies, conservation groups, ranchers and private landowners hoping to avoid a repeat of the spotted owl situation that devastated the Oregon timber industry in the 1990s. Similar effect could have occurred to Oregon’s ranching industry, with vast sweeping land use restrictions coming into effect.
The determination not to list the species came after evaluation of the bird’s population, along with collective efforts by state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage grouse remain relatively abundant and well distributed across the species’ 173-million acre range. After analysis of the best available scientific information and ongoing conservation efforts, it was determined it doesn’t face risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future, therefore protection isn’t required.
“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration,” said Jewell. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation – ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife.”
A deadline of Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 had been established to review the species’ status, spurring an expedited effort between agencies and landowners to restore habitat, including removal of invasive grasses and juniper trees. In 2010, it was determined the sage grouse warranted ESA protection due to population declines caused by loss and fragmentation of habitat. However, the need to address higher-priority listing actions precluded taking action. Since that time, actions have added needed protections, increasing certainty that habitat will be preserved.
“I applaud the efforts of ranchers, conservationists, governors and others who have come to the table, signed agreements and worked hard on the ground to fight for rural Oregon jobs and communities,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. “This victory goes to show how collaboration between private stakeholders and local, state and federal leaders can lead to balanced, sustainable solutions for the management of wildlife and our public lands.”
Efforts by private landowners in undertaking voluntary sage-grouse conservation have been an important element. Through the sage grouse initiative more than 1,100 ranchers have restored or conserved over 4.4 million acres of habitat across 11 western states, with voluntary conservation efforts expected to reach eight million acres by 2018.
“Farmers and ranchers in eastern Oregon have been working hard to avoid a listing of the sage grouse,” said Rep. Greg Walden (OR-2nd District). “I’m glad the Administration recognized these efforts and decided not to move forward with a listing. This will give communities in Oregon time to implement locally driven conservation efforts without the federal government’s heavy hand getting in the way.”
While the decision is cause for celebration, it is not the end of the process, as plans must still be implemented to meet criteria established to ensure that the sage grouse’s populations can recover.
“I think it’s important people look at this as a milestone and not a finish line,” said John O’Keeffe, Adel-based rancher, who has been instrumental in sage grouse conservation efforts for over a decade. “Much of the effort up until now has been put into what we can do to conserve, now we’re at the point where we have to implement it. It’s important to keep the momentum to prove that it was the right decision. I think people learned from the Spotted Owl that highly restrictive regulatory conservation doesn’t necessarily work. Now we can put energy into the main threats, and that’s good for the bird, the west and the environment.”
O’Keeffe, a member of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, cited Tom Sharp and the Harney County CCAA as being instrumental in the ongoing efforts.