Give sage grouse plans time
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.