Secretary of the Interioir Sally Jewell recently commended Sublette County rancher Brad Bousman for undertaking sage grouse conservation on his family's ranch. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe, behind, will decide by the end of September, 2015 whether his agency will place the bird under Endangered Species Act protection, potentially impacting agriculture across the West. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

As federal officials mull whether to protect the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, some conservationists say a federal takeover would undermine support from states, agriculture interests and hunters.

Putting the species under federal management, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to decide on by the end of September, 2015, could result in a backlash from states that have invested heavily in grouse conservation, several key players say. A listing would also cut funding from sportsmen and could undermine the Endangered Species Act itself, they say.

Among those holding such opinions are an architect of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Core Area Program and the former head of Nevada’s Department of Wildlife. Their opinions are not universally embraced, however they point out that the 11 western states where the greater sage grouse still struts have spent about $200 million in grouse conservation since 2000.

State contributions amount to a 21 percent share of the projected $85 million annual sage grouse conservation budget nationwide, according to one research paper. If grouse were managed from Washington, D.C., states would be less inclined to pony up, said Audubon Wyoming director Brian Rutledge.

Wyoming Game and Fish asks grouse hunters to deposit a wing from each bird they kill so biologists can estimate the age makeup of each year’s population. Hunters — major contributors to wildlife conservation — would be reluctant to continue supporting grouse if they lose the opportunity to hunt, some say. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
Wyoming Game and Fish asks grouse hunters to deposit a wing from each bird they kill so biologists can estimate the age makeup of each year’s population. Hunters — major contributors to wildlife conservation — would be reluctant to continue supporting grouse if they lose the opportunity to hunt, some say. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Rutledge has worked extensively with Wyoming and other states’ governors and said he’s taken their temperatures.

“It would certainly reduce the investment in the grouse,” he said of federal protection. The Endangered Species Act is better used to negotiate with states for improved local grouse conservation, than it is to impose federal management, he said.

Some of the 11 governors would be reluctant to cooperate with their major landowner should the grouse be listed, Rutledge said.

“What’s the state going to say, ‘we’ll help you with that because it’s our favorite thing to do,’” he said. “It’s a federal problem,” he said of potential attitudes. “Why would we pay for a problem with your bird?”

States have contributed $200 million

From 2000 to 2012, the 11 western states spent at least $132 million in grouse conservation, said Ken Mayer, former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife who helped author a 2012 white paper on the topic. That sum is closer to $200 million today, he said.

“When a species gets listed, people start walking away,” he said. Among those would be sportsmen and state game and wildlife agencies.

If the grouse were listed, state wildlife administrators would have trouble justifying use of sportsmen and women’s money for a species that can’t be hunted, Mayer said.

“Sage-grouse management and conservation projects in some states are funded largely with earmarked revenue generated from the sales of upland game bird licenses or stamps,” according to a different paper by Mayer’s Western Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee that was penned in 2010. “It would be difficult to justify the use of such hunter dollars for managing an unhunted species, especially if the sage-grouse populations can support harvest.”

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contemplates adding the grouse to the threatened or endangered list, it also should remember the potential loss of that financial support, Mayer said. However, the Endangered Species Act is not supposed to take economic impact into account, according to a brief prepared by a University of Wyoming law professor.

“Economic impact is not a factor considered in a listing decision,” Temple Stoellinger wrote in June for the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy center (download the pdf).

“Some have speculated that the negative economic impacts associated with listing the Sage-Grouse are so great that the FWS cannot, for political reasons, list the Sage-Grouse,” she wrote in the brief titled “Implications of a greater sage-grouse listing on Western energy development.”

“Alternatively they argue that if it is listed, Congress will provide a remedy to reduce the negative economic impact,” Stoellinger wrote. “I disagree with both.

“Economic impact is not one of the five factors listed under the ESA that the FWS must consider when making a decision to list a species, they simply are precluded from considering the economic impact in their decision-making process.”

Hunters critical to conservation

Hunters have been crucial to the conservation of big game in North America for generations, but their contributions would evaporate if grouse are listed and hunting prohibited, said Ed Arnett, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Responsible Energy Development. Hunters want hunting opportunities in return for their contributions to conservation.

“We will continue as long as we have an opportunity to harvest the species,” he said of some hunters’ views of their aid.

If Fish and Wildlife can’t consider the potential loss of states’ financial support, it must at least figure out how it would staff a federal recovery program operated under the Endangered Species Act, Audubon’s Rutledge said. Today, for example, Wyoming has a statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team and eight local working groups that strive to improve grouse habitat and the bird’s survival.

With a listing, instead of having 11 states and 11 game departments working on grouse conservation, “you would instead have half a dozen Fish and Wildlife Service employees,” Rutledge said. Their time would be spent writing regulations and waivers, not improving habitat and saving grouse.

Fish and Wildlife itself would rather not list the grouse, director Dan Ashe said during a recent trip to Sublette County where he lauded ranchers’ conservation practices at a ceremony at Trappers’ Point.

“It is our hope we can conserve the sage grouse such that listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered species Act will not be necessary,” he told a group that included stockmen and women, Gov. Matt Mead and Ashe’s boss, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

States’ talk of backing away from conservation efforts isn’t blackmail any more than the threat of listing is, Rutledge said. The threat of listing the grouse “is encouraging the states to manage their primacy so the feds don’t have to take it over,” Rutledge said.

Other conservationists disagree

Not everybody embraces the views of Rutledge, Mayer, Ashe and Arnett. Some conservation groups have heavily criticized Wyoming’s grouse plan and a new BLM framework for the Lander area based on it. In September, six conservation groups gave the BLM an F for its Lander plan, considered to be a model for upcoming management revisions across the agency’s western domain.

BLM didn’t meet 24 of 33 grouse conservation standards, said the groups, which include the American Bird Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity. The groups asked Jewell to rescind the Lander document.

The impact of a grouse listing would be sweeping, characterized as seven times broader than the controversial protection of the Northern Spotted Owl in 1990. Fish and Wildlife has already determined listing of the sage grouse is warranted, but it did not add the bird to its lists, saying such action was precluded by higher priorities. Settlement of a court case set the 2015 deadline for making a decision.

Federal management is expected to result in restrictions on agricultural and energy activities in grouse sagebrush country. “They’re figuring on taking a huge hit economically by (potential) new restrictions going into place,” Rutledge said of Western states.

That assertion is backed by David Willms and Anne Alexander who calculated some potential costs in an article in Wyoming Law Review, (2014 Vol. 2).

“Designation of a species’ critical habitat under ESA can lead to great expenses for people or industries wishing to do business in those identified areas, if they can continue doing business at all,” they wrote. “Listing the sage grouse could have catastrophic impacts on Wyoming’s economy by severely limiting Wyoming’s agricultural and energy industries.”

If the federal government were to protect the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, the move could have an unprecedented impact on oil and gas activity in core grouse habitat. Some development, like this drilling in in 2003 in the already approved Jonah Field, would continue. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

They calculate that more than 1,600 energy jobs and almost another 4,000 associated jobs would be lost if the oil and gas industry were stopped from working in core grouse areas. “The state could lose $135 million in direct labor income and over $255 million in total labor income,” the article says.

Another $30 million could be lost in severance tax revenues and more than $3.6 million in sales and use taxes each year, the two said. Not included in those figures are lost county and municipal taxes and more, the article says.

Although the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl resulted in the loss of some 30,000 jobs in the timber industry in Washington state, “it likely pales in comparison to the negative impacts a sage grouse listing would have on Wyoming,” the article states.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said in February that a sage grouse listing would cost his state $41 billion in oil and gas economic production, the Deseret News reported.

Up-front federal engagement

Meantime, states are scrambling to convince Fish and Wildlife their plans are credible. Fish and Wildlife, in turn, is advising the states about what to do.

“In this case, they’re actively helping with what needs to be done and how to do it,” Rutledge said. “It’s telling you how you’re doing at the midterm so when the final comes you can get an A.

“This is the first time it’s been done this way with a full-blown engagement ahead of time,” he said. “It’s very responsible — the feds are addressing the entire ecosystem in one fell swoop instead of addressing it piecemeal.

“If we don’t cope with this opportunity to get it right on sage grouse, we will have to deal with this being seen as a direct affront by the Endangered Species Act and we will see the enemies of the act and those frustrated trying to take on the act and see it dismantled or destroyed,” Rutledge said. “They’re already at it.”

Wyoming’s U.S. Rep Cynthia Lummis (R) has the act in her sights, but she denies intentions to weaken it. She is co-chairman of a GOP ESA working group along with U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington.

Their proposal to change the act seeks, among other things, to reduce the number of lawsuits that are filed in efforts to enforce endangered species laws, according to a statement from the group. One of those suits, filed by WildEarth Guardians, led Fish and Wildlife to agree to decide about the grouse’s fate by September 2015.

In an Oct. 18 letter to Jewell, Lummis, Hastings and others complained about “mega-settlement deadlines negotiated behind closed-doors.”

U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi (R) and John Barrasso (R), with Lummis, this year co-sponsored other legislation that would delay sage grouse listing for a decade. The goal is to allow state management plans to produce results, a statement from Enzi’s office said.

Despite these actions, it’s unlikely the Endangered Species Act would be dismantled, UW professor Stoellinger wrote.

“Congress has been discussing ESA reform since nearly the day after the Act was passed in 1973, succeeding to pass only minor amendments,” she wrote. “Congress did not step in and provide relief when the Northern Spotted Owl was listed, nor is there any reason to hold out hope that a bipartisan solution would be provided for Sage-Grouse given our current political climate.”

As various interest groups make their cases in the run-up to the Fish and Wildlife decision, agency director Ashe and his staffers are not necessarily looking for numbers, but threats, Nevada’s Mayer said. Among those are wildfire and invasive plants, particularly cheatgrass, which dramatically increases the probability that fire will ravage sagebrush habitat to the detriment of the grouse.

Rutledge wants numbers — lots of greater sage grouse — too. Many more than the 535,452 that Willms and Alexander estimate remain.

“My objective is to see the bird recover to a significantly greater number than what we have now,” he said. “That can only be done by restoring and reclaiming what habitat we have left.”

For more on this topic, read these WyoFile stories:
Jewell, Mead laud ranchers’ grouse conservation, October 15, 2014
BLM mixes oil, grouse in Lander plan, July 1, 2014
Conservation groups give BLM an F for sage grouse protection, September 2, 2014

Read the white paper, Western States’ Sage-grouse Conservation Expenditures:

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. The Greater Sage-Grouse is just one of 20 or more sage brush obligates (species that depend on sage brush habitat for their survival). The Greater Sage-Grouse has been the most studied and is therefore an indicator species for the others that inhabit the sage brush steppe…in fact the USFWS says “little is known about the habitat needs of many of these (other) species, so that protection and preservation of intact habitat areas is paramount”. The success of habitat preservation largely depends on a carrot and stick approach and it is critical that those ‘tools’ are in the hands of both the states and USFWS. A listing would devastate state economies, but the removal of the possibility of a listing would likely devastate habitat.