A conservation program that works for wildlife, oilmen and landowners alike

Eric Holst

This is an adaptation of a blog post first published by EDF’s Growing Returns.

You may have seen a strange-looking bird causing quite a stir in the news as of late.

That’s because there’s a lot at stake with the greater sage-grouse, especially now that a rider in the federal spending bill prevents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the species under the Endangered Species Act this year.

This delay isn’t stopping ranchers, conservationists and other key stakeholders from moving full speed ahead to find a solution.

You might not get this sense from the political debate and recent media reports. But on the ground these days, there is a real spirit of cooperation when it comes to the greater sage-grouse.

That’s because everyone realizes that – rider or no rider, listing or no listing – this bird needs help.

Society can better avoid significant costs with upfront actions, rather than reactive regulations.

The greater sage-grouse, a brownish-gray bird that walks on the ground more than it flies and makes its home out West, once numbered in the millions. Over the past 30 years, however, the population has shrunk 30 percent to no more than 500,000 birds, and it could be less than half that.

We don’t have another year to sit back and watch populations decline further. Doing nothing will only increase the need for federal action in the future. 

Conservation is good business for landowners

The best thing we can do is to use this time to build a conservation program that works – fast.

That’s exactly what state agencies, landowners, energy companies and conservation groups are trying to do through habitat exchanges, which will let landowners such as ranchers and farmers get paid for growing sage-grouse habitat.

Habitat exchanges are unique in that they’ve been designed to work whether or not a species is actually listed – providing incentives to get good conservation on the ground before any last minute Hail Mary federal protections are needed.

“Research has shown that society can better avoid significant costs with upfront actions, rather than reactive regulations,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “Everyone sees the opportunity; they realize that species like the greater sage-grouse can thrive as a managed component of a successful beef cattle ranch.”

We should all want to see populations grow so a listing won’t be necessary. But crossing our fingers and hoping for the best is not a winning strategy.

We must nurture the productive partnerships that have already been developed in sage-grouse country to promote solutions such as habitat exchanges that benefit everyone: the oilman, the cattle rancher and the sage-grouse.

In this case, everyone’s a winner.

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