The greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is a hefty, spiky bird best known for its mating rituals. Groups of males sporting yellow throat sacs gather in arenas (called leks) to perform elaborate dances for females. These flashy, charismatic birds once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the western United States. But with drilling, mining, ranching, and wildfires, the species lost nearly half its habitat – and their numbers plummeted. They do, however, remain relatively abundant within their current 173-million-acre range, which spans across 11 states.
So, in what’s being described as a “21st-century approach to conservation,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the greater sage-grouse will not be listed as an endangered species. Rather, 90% of its breeding habitat will be protected, restored, and enhanced with multiple plans from a multitude of players. U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, announced “the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history” in a video this week.
“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” Jewell said in a statement. “The epic conservation effort will benefit westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home, while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”
The bird was considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act back in 2010. But the possibility of a federal listing sparked fears of huge economic losses, Audubon explained: It would have restricted energy development, livestock grazing, and residential construction in nearly a dozen states. Since then, federal and state agencies, ranchers, and dozens of other stakeholders both public and private are working towards a compromise.
The agreement allows 90% of the areas of highest value to the oil and gas industry to be drilled, Science reported. While industry and some politicians say the plan puts too many restrictions on industry, some conservation advocates say the grouse would get the greatest legal protection available by being listed.
The decision that the greater sage-grouse doesn’t face extinction risk now or in the foreseeable future – and therefore doesn’t need protection under the Act – comes a week before the deadline to review the species’ status. “It shows how the Act can be effective, not only when it calls for emergency regulations to save a species, but also as an incentive for governments, conservation groups, and private landowners to collaborate towards conserving a species before its populations become critically endangered,” Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s John Fitzpatrick said in a statement.
“I think there were both carrots and sticks at work here,” Alan Krakauer of UC Davis told IFLScience. “The stick was the threat of listing, and the carrots were signals, from past statements and ruling on Gunnison’s sage-grouse and individual greater sage-grouse populations, that if good plans were in place, listing would not be required.” Gunnison’s sage-grouse, which is much more threatened, was not listed as endangered either.
About half of the greater sage-grouse’s habitat is on federal lands, including the drier uplands where the birds mate, nest, and spend their fall and winter months. The other half lies on state and private lands, which includes the wetter meadows and riverside habitat important for chicks. What happens next depends on the implementation of government plans, as well as the actions of private landowners. The status of the species will be reevaluated in five years.
All images: Alan Krakauer/UC Davis