A new approach to conservation: How we averted the listing of an imperiled bird

Eric Holst

Last month, I heard a third-generation Nevada rancher describe how he came to look at the federal government and its wildlife management policies with new eyes.

Duane Coombs had participated in a multi-state, historic effort to try to recover the greater sage grouse, the unique and threatened bird whose habitat stretches across 11 Western states, including his own land.

Now he was at an event on the steppe east of Denver together with Republican governors, Democratic governors, members of the Obama administration, environmentalists and ranchers like himself. We had all come to celebrate a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Coombs was very proud of his conservation work, and told us about the friendship his young daughter had struck up with a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey who would come out to his property to monitor the bird. For this rancher, who had grown up with a mistrust of the federal government, it was a metaphor for the changing approach to wildlife conservation we’re seeing today.

Fish and Wildlife’s “not-warranted” decision signals that we’re moving toward a system where wildlife habitat is protected because we’re working with – not against – those who own and use the land where wildlife exists.

It sends a message that early action and collaborative efforts bring results. And it made all of us see that it’s possible to avoid the conflicts that have characterized the endangered species debates for so long.

A market solution that benefits wildlife, people

The greater sage grouse is part of the fiber of the West, but 90 percent of the bird’s population has disappeared in recent decades, largely because of habitat decline. It may seem intuitive that it be listed as endangered, and that the organization I work for would support such a decision.

Instead, the government based its decision on the many conservation actions and commitments that had been made to help the bird recover. Habitat exchange is one of the programs that contributed to Fish and Wildlife’s conclusion that the sage grouse will likely recover.

Two of the 11 sage grouse states, Colorado and Nevada, based their state plans partly on exchanges. In addition, the federal government, which manages half of all sage grouse habitat, has committed to fully mitigating impacts to the bird’s habitat.

It means there will be a process under which land users who affect the habitat will be responsible for creating habitat benefit elsewhere. They can do so by purchasing credits from landowners who commit to improving habitat for the sage grouse. The transactions will managed by mechanisms such as habitat exchanges.

Our team spent hundreds of hours around conference tables over the past several years and in several states, discussing with industry and ranchers how to implement these agreements, and reaching consensus on issues such as cost. The hard work eventually paid off.

Individual ranchers throughout the West poured their heart and soul into the sage grouse effort because they know a listing would have led to restrictions on their land. The alternate plan approved by Fish and Wildlife creates a new opportunity for ranchers to earn revenue that, for example, help them control an invasive weed and provide better forage for their cattle – while at the same time preventing wildfires that are a major threat to the sage grouse.

Oil and gas companies and other industries that affect the bird’s habitat, and which will be responsible for some of the mitigation costs, also know a listing would have been a drain on their operations. Many of these companies have been anxious to play a proactive role in developing exchanges and to contribute to the not-warranted decision.

On to the next species

Now the pressure is on to implement actions and show that the bird will come back. Fish and Wildlife’s decision can be revisited if the population continues to decline, or if conservation commitments are not implemented.

But if we build on the success of the sage grouse and apply it to other threatened species – there are still about 150 in the pipeline for possible listing – we can replicate the effort and move toward a future where species recovery is embraced by all Americans.