In lieu of an Endangered Species Act listing, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) resource management plans have been modified to further protect the greater sage grouse and increase grazing restrictions. On Sept. 22, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the bird wouldn’t be listed due to the implementation of the new plans.

The greater sage grouse has been studied for more than a decade as a potential candidate for ESA listing. In 2010, the government found the decline of sage grouse numbers significant enough to determine its listing was “warranted but precluded,” which delayed a listing. A majority of the sage grouse habitat, around 64 percent, exists on public land.

Jewell applauded the “unprecedented effort” of conservation by multiple groups across 11 Western states, to collaborate on working solutions for habitat protection. Those efforts, she said, “add up to a bright future for the sage grouse.”

But that didn’t go far enough to assuage many in the ranching community, who found the new policies almost as burdensome as a listing for the bird.

Dave Dahlgren, a Utah State University Extension associate who has been researching sage grouse for nearly 14 years, said the updated management plans for sage grouse may be worse than an actual listing. The modified management plans are inconsistent with most state management plans, which have led states to sue the federal government.


“As the states responded with their concerns with these plans,” Dahlgren said, “BLM and USFS came back with – for all of their concerns – a blanket ‘we’re consistent’ and never addressed the issues specifically.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter filed a lawsuit against the federal government days after Jewell’s announcement. Idaho is upset with the agencies’ failure to complete the federal process and consider local plans.

“We didn’t want an ESA listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse,” Otter said in a statement. “This complaint is an unfortunate but necessary step to protect the rights of Idaho citizens to participate in public land decisions that will impact their communities, their economy and their lives.”

In another statement, the Idaho Cattle Association, while applauding the decision not to list the sage grouse, called the federal management plan “a significant departure from the plan” finalized by a wide cross-section of stakeholders. “Clearly, the plan was sufficient as developed and the 11th-hour additions made in Washington, D.C., away from the light of collaboration and cooperation, are both unnecessary and over-reaching.”

According to Dahlgren, there are various things inside the plans that can affect grazing and land use, including disturbance caps and restrictions on water development.

“Ranchers should maintain good working relationships with their local federal partners as they move forward,” Dahlgren said. “Sometimes litigation is the start of working things out when things haven’t been worked out before.”

Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said in a statement that Idaho’s conservation plan and science supports preventing sage grouse from being listed under the ESA.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored Idaho sage grouse experts and arbitrarily designated thousands of additional acres as sage grouse strongholds when they don’t even contain sage grouse habitat,” Moore said in a statement. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders recently stopped using science and common sense when it came to identifying sage grouse habitat for federal land managers.”

Timothy Teichert, a generational rancher near Cokeville, Wyoming, deals with sage grouse on a daily basis. Teichert operates 2,000 head of cattle on public and private land.

“The government has such a control that it becomes a ‘land grab’ opportunity once they think the sage grouse are in trouble,” Teichert said. “If we are worried about an animal being endangered, we need to worry more about the animal than the habitat.”  end mark

PHOTO: Efforts to restore greater sage grouse numbers in the U.S. have been a challenge due to drought, wildfires and urban expansion. Photo provided by USDA NRCS.