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Protecting the Sage Grouse Requires Local Conservation Solutions, Collaboration

By Doug Young Both the Gunnison and greater sage grouse are renown throughout the West for their elaborate courtship rituals. But these majestic birds are now inspiring a dangerous game of chicken that threatens to undermine the collaborative, locally driven dialogue needed to save the species.  

Efforts to save the sage grouse have fallen into a well-worn track: Vocal (and litigious) advocates for the birds resort to lawsuits to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act under the Endangered Species Act; and equally vocal individuals living and doing business next to the bird’s habitat resist any change, citing their way of life and economic livelihood. Both sides have legitimate arguments, but their tactics result in a zero-sum game that spawns conflicting scientific analyses and congressional intercession.  

There has to be a better way. After all, no one rejoices in the hardships involved in protecting a species that thrives on lands home to thriving cattle ranches and rich with energy resources. Likewise no one is cheering on the demise of an entire species.  

The Endangered Species Act is an important arrow in the quiver of conservationists, land managers and policymakers alike. However, it is not the only means to conserving species. If history is any guide, listing should only be used when all other options have been exhausted or failed.  

The effort to protect the sage grouse is far from there — and the brinksmanship that has characterized its preservation has, in fact, dis-incentivized the type of local conservation that should be utilized. The recent listing of the Gunnison sage grouse and the looming decision on the greater sage grouse threaten this outcome.  

To be sure, federal agencies should step in when a species in imperiled and institute objective, measurable and enforceable land-use requirements. That said, these types of policies can have serious consequences and costs for local land owners and businesses.  

However, some owners of sage grouse habitat are already showing how a combination of voluntary conservation measures — conservation easements, memorandums of understanding with state or federal agencies, oil and gas lease stipulations that bar certain actions or require others, and other arrangements — can protect the sage grouse without litigation or a listing through the Endangered Species Act.  

A newspaper in southwest Colorado recently chronicled the story of local landowner Lenore Seltenreich. Recognizing the importance of the sagebrush habitat on her land, she partnered with a local land conservancy to permanently protect her property for the benefit of the recently listed Gunnison sage grouse. She also enrolled her property in the state’s conservation reserve program further formalizing a commitment to wildlife preservation.  

Even though Seltenreich’s actions followed the recent “threatened” listing for the bird, it’s emblematic of a strategy that would have avoided a listing and could someday help the bird’s numbers recover. Moreover, her example underscores how the best conservation efforts don’t start in a judge’s chambers or the halls of Congress — and they diverge from the well-worn tracks that pit wildlife against our way of life.  

Although the hallmark of the sage grouse is its elaborate, exaggerated displays, our efforts to save them should avoid mimicry. The sage grouse’s continued existence depends on it.  

Doug Young is a senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center.

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