Possibly because of its waffling on the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline issue, the Obama administration may not get as much credit as it deserves for a history of striking reasonable, if not flawless, balances between environmental protection and economic development.
Yet in areas ranging from offshore and Arctic oil exploration to wildlife conservation, the administration is, at least, not in the pocket of the more extreme Democratic constituencies whose knee-jerk response to any perceived environmental threat is to shout “no way!” rather than to try to find a way that works.
The latest example comes from a humble but surprisingly beloved bird.
The greater sage grouse is a chicken-sized species (though not to be confused with a prairie chicken, which is a different type of grouse) that has faced declining populations due to a combination of factors, such as expanded natural gas drilling and large wildfires destroying the sagebrush in which the grouse nest. Environmental groups have pushed for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The sage grouse has been under consideration for listing since 2010.
Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it has decided not to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Colorado to make the announcement, and said that Fish and Wildlife determined that the grouse “does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.”
For many, the decision came as a relief. An endangered species listing for the sage grouse would have created significant restrictions on large expanses of federal land in the West. Inland of the Pacific Coast, the terrain is mostly mountain ranges with trees connected by large, open plains with sagebrush. In fact, most of the land in the intermountain West and the western Great Plains is sagebrush country. The greater sage grouse’s range spans 11 states; had the grouse been listed, it would have been a big deal.
For one thing, the federal government is by far the largest landowner in many western states - in some states, the government owns a huge proportion of the total. Nevada is an extreme case at 84.5 percent, but in Utah, Oregon and Idaho, federal land ownership also tops 50 percent. According to The Washington Post, more than half of the land that makes up the sage grouse’s habitat, stretching from Washington state to New Mexico, is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Restrictions on federally owned land alone would have had a huge impact.
But restrictions resulting from listing the grouse as endangered would have also affected private land throughout the bird’s range. Ranchers worried that restricted grazing lands would limit herd sizes, and energy industry representatives suggested increased oversight might make it difficult or impossible to operate in sagebrush areas. The bird is popular with hunters in eight states where it is a legal game bird, but hunting endangered species is prohibited, so listing it as endangered would have hurt the sporting goods and tourism industries. The overall economic impact of a listing would have been substantial in much of the West.
What happened instead was a public and private partnership, in which ranchers and other private landowners voluntarily adopted land use practices to protect the bird and promote its recovery. In her announcement, Jewell praised the cooperation, saying, “This is truly a historic effort,” which 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.”
State and local governments have worked in recent years to encourage recovery of sage grouse populations. The initiative is also backed by state recreation and tourism industries. Even in places, such as Washington, where hunting the grouse isn’t allowed, the bird is a fixture of the Western landscape and efforts to protect it have gained ground in recent years. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies recently reported that the population has already begun its recovery.
The Interior Department is supporting and expanding that effort by offering incentives to state governments and private landowners who protect grouse habitats. Officials will also try to fight the invasive cheatgrass that competes with sagebrush for land and water, and worsens the potential for out-of-control wildfires. Still other efforts center on making sure grouse don’t injure themselves on ranchers’ wire fences or scatter when frightened by noises of human activity, making them more vulnerable to predators.
Some environmental groups are on board with this collaborative approach. National Audubon Society President and Chief Executive David Yarnold said, “Finding a shared path forward beats scaring all the stakeholders into their corners.” Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, also issued a statement of support. Other environmental organizations, which I would describe as single-issue constituencies incapable of considering problems in a wider context, will only be happy with the most intrusive restrictions possible (that is to say, an endangered designation). There is already talk of a potential legal challenge to the federal plan.
Some industry representatives and politicians have leveled criticism at the plan from the other direction, claiming it is still too onerous for those living and working in the states where sage grouse live. The Independent Petroleum Association of America claimed the plan will unfairly burden smaller oil companies. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert expressed “deep concern” and claimed that Interior’s “actions constitute the equivalent of a listing decision outside the normal process.”
For a bird that doesn’t live in the trees, the sage grouse isn’t quite out of the woods yet.
Yet this administrative compromise offers a reasonable way forward. If sage grouse populations don’t recover as they should, or if they backslide, the government can always change its mind and list the bird as endangered in the future. But with some accommodation to the bird’s needs from governments and landowners alike, there is a decent chance this story will have a happy ending.