Sage grouse politics

Local solutions must be meaningful to avoid federal intervention

In many a fight over how to balance environmental protection against development – economic, residential, energy or otherwise – there emerges an iconic critter around which to rally. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it was the caribou that would be compromised by drilling for oil. In the Pacific Northwest, the spotted owl was the poster bird in a charged debate over logging. In the sagebrush plains of western Colorado and beyond, it is the sage grouse that embodies the tug-of-war between energy development and landscape protection – and who gets to call the match.

The Gunnison grouse has called Montezuma County home in the past, though several decades have passed since the birds roosted there; greater sage grouse favor lands farther north in the state. The two grouse species have seen their habitat steadily and detrimentally fragmented by grazing, housing development and energy extraction. The fancy-dancing birds are particularly sensitive to such development, and their numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

This has caught conservation groups’ and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s attention with concerns about the birds’ respective viability, and the agency is considering adding both to the endangered species list. Such a listing has serious ramifications for land use, and typically is met with significant resistance from anyone who would like less-fettered access to sage grouse habitat.

The result is an effort to craft a state-based approach that will satisfy the Fish & Wildlife Service.

A recommendation from Gov. John Hickenlooper, crafted with input from communities in Northwest Colorado, conservationists and energy groups, aimed to protect greater sage grouse habitat while forestalling federal action on the birds’ behalf. The Fish & Wildlife Service is waiting until after November to determine whether an endangered listing for the Gunnison sage grouse – the less prevalent of the two birds – is appropriate.

This election year has provided a prominent political venue for the fight. Republican senatorial candidates, including Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, are sponsoring legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives prohibiting a federal endangered species listing for 10 years, provided the states are addressing grouse habitat needs.

While it is surely most appropriate that solutions to the birds’ dwindling habitat be generated at the state level, with significant input from all concerned parties – landowners, local wildlife managers, state and federal land managers, industry representatives, conservation groups and decision-makers at the state and local level – those solutions must have meaningful benchmarks to ensure progress. A federal endangered species listing – or its threat – is to ignite local action. Any such action must be significant and effective.

It is unclear whether the state solution Hickenlooper proposed for the greater sage grouse is enough to qualify – some conservationists say it is mere window-dressing; some industry groups say it is job-crushingly onerous. The Gunnison sage grouse is awaiting a states-based solution, as well.

Time is of the essence, though, and 10 years is too long to wait to see if local ideas are working – in terms of effect on grouse habitat as well as cost to states and industry.

Instead of using the sage grouse as political footballs, state and federal decision-makers must take seriously the need to protect the birds’ habitat now. The alternatives – an endangered species listing and all its associated requirements, or fully decimated habitat for a critical western icon – are hardly preferable.