Give sage grouse plans time

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Dave Showal­ter

Pick­ing a fight that no one wants, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke’s an­nounce­ment call­ing for a new re­view of the 2015 greater sage grouse con­ser­va­tion plans raises Western hack­les. While he prom­ises to “strengthen com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween states and feds,” he’s propos­ing dra­matic and untested changes to how we man­age our wildlife.

He’s dis­miss­ing the fact that what we have to­day was based on years of care­ful work by Western­ers, in­clud­ing Gov. John Hick­en­looper and state agen­cies re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the bird. A new plan start­ing from square one is a slap in the face to the years of col­lab­o­ra­tion that has al­ready gone into this. It ig­nores decades of sci­ence, and pits in­dus­try against pub­lic lands ad­vo­cates, which will di­vide folks across mil­lions of acres in the West.

It’s cru­cial that we sup­port the col­lab­o­ra­tive process that got us where we are to­day. Let’s give the cur­rent sage grouse man­age­ment plans a chance to work.

When for­mer In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Sally Jewell an­nounced the de­ci­sion not to list the bird in 2015, she cited the un­prece­dented bi­par­ti­san ef­fort to pro­tect sage grouse across 11 states and 165 mil­lion acres. At that an­nounce­ment, Hick­en­looper stood be­side her, as did other lead­ers from the West.

In the years build­ing up to the an­nounce­ment, all stake­hold­ers — in­clud­ing state and fed­eral agen­cies, in­dus­try, ranch­ing, sports­men, out­door re­cre­ation, con­ser­va­tion groups — came to­gether around the cen­tral idea of pro­tect­ing a species and its habi­tat to avoid the need for a list­ing, set­ting the pre­mier ex­am­ple of how a flex­i­ble En­dan­gered Species Act can be a win-win sit­u­a­tion.

Sage grouse spend their en­tire life cy­cle in sage­brush, thriv­ing in un­bro­ken ex­panses of sage, the dom­i­nant shrub in val­leys and basins of the West. Good habi­tat for sage grouse is good for just about every­thing else out here, in­clud­ing 350 other species of wildlife that also rely on healthy sage, hence the say­ing “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”

Sadly, this bi­o­log­i­cally rich and im­por­tant coun­try has been largely ig­nored by the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Seen as the “big empty,” we’ve plowed, dammed, de­vel­oped and drilled it. Once num­ber­ing 16 mil­lion, only 250,000-500,000 sage grouse re­main to­day.

Against that sober­ing back­drop and the recog­ni­tion of the larger ben­e­fits of a healthy sage­brush habi­tat, folks came to­gether to craft the 2015 land­scape scale sage grouse con­ser­va­tion part­ner­ship with ac­count­abil­ity and as­sur­ances built in.

Now Zinke is con­sid­er­ing a ma­jor game changer — from man­ag­ing the bird based on habi­tat, which is the best ap­proach based on the bird’s bi­ol­ogy, to in­stead man­ag­ing based on pop­u­la­tion num­bers.

This species’ num­bers rise and fall cycli­cally, and dra­mat­i­cally, which is why states are op­posed to this idea. Zinke’s ap­proach cre­ates too much un­cer­tainty. The sec­re­tary is also talk­ing about cap­tive breed­ing of grouse. Man­ag­ing a cycli­cal, wild species us­ing me­dian pop­u­la­tion num­bers and cap­tive breed­ing is a poor sub­sti­tute for the habi­tat pro­tec­tion that ben­e­fits nearly all Western wildlife and com­mu­ni­ties.

See­ing greater sage grouse is a spring rit­ual for many who rise well be­fore dawn to get sit­u­ated in a chilly blind high on the open sage­brush steppe to wit­ness the their unique courtship rit­ual. Males gath­er­ing at the same lek year af­ter year, puff­ing up air sacs, boom­ing across the land­scape, a spec­tac­u­lar dance for sur­vival.

No one for­gets their first time view­ing these noble birds. Jux­ta­pose that ex­pe­ri­ence with cap­tive rear­ing, and pop­u­la­tion man­age­ment un­der a rushed plan with no sci­en­tific foun­da­tion, si­lenc­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of voices, in­clud­ing Western gov­er­nors in sup­port of the cur­rent con­ser­va­tion plans. The greater sage grouse is no cap­tive-reared an­i­mal. In­stead they are a proud and in­de­pen­dent sym­bol of the rugged Western sage­brush coun­try.

We have just this one en­dur­ing sage­brush ecosys­tem of the Amer­i­can West. The years of work put in by peo­ple who live and work out on these lands shouldn’t get tossed out be­cause of a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion made in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Dave Showal­ter is a Colorado-based con­ser­va­tion pho­tog­ra­pher and au­thor.

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