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Greater sage grouse feathers stick in the craws of Utah politicians.
U. S. Rep. Rob Bishop is raising the specter that efforts to protect the lowly, but threatened, bird will endanger military training operations.
Defense Department leaders say that's a nonstarter . But last week, Bishop still amended an annual defense bill barring the listing of the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act for a decade just in case.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have paid consultant Ryan Benson $4 million to lobby against listing the "sage hen." And Utah legislators also set aside $1 million for the attorney general to fight "multi-stage" sage grouse litigation.
All the political frenzy may be much ado about nothing an expensive ado about nothing.
Wildlife managers and biologists acknowledge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's strategy for endangered species may have shifted through the years from plowing ahead to a listing, to just threatening a future listing. In the end, observers say, the Wildlife Service can get states to put in place better protections for threatened animals simply by suggesting a listing.
The greater sage grouse is a prime example.
"The threat of that ESA stick hanging over industry and entities and potentially having to change their practices is taken seriously," said Edward Arnett, senior scientist and director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
"The threat of that potential listing is what motivates people sometimes."
And Utah and 10 other Western states have been well motivated by the threat of a grouse listing to the tune of $424 million raised since 2010 for restoration efforts and 4.4 million acres of sage grouse habitat conserved through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), a collaboration of sometimes opposing groups working through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Fish and Wildlife is expected to make a decision to list or not to list by the end of September.
Historic range • Sage grouse once flourished in the West's sagebrush sea, from Washington and Montana to Arizona and New Mexico. At one point, the grouse numbered as many as 16 million birds across North America.
Fish and Wildlife biologists now estimate somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 birds live in the West.
The grouse also known as sagehen, sage cock or sage chicken are considered an umbrella species for the ecosystem. A popular line thrown around in sage grouse conservation circles is "if it is good for the bird, it is good for the herd."
More than 350 plant and animal species that call sage lands their home including pronghorn, mule deer, elk, pygmy rabbits and sage thrashers benefit from conservation efforts designed for the sage grouse.
"They are the modern-day canary in the coal mine," Arnett said. "They are telling us these sagebrush habitats are in trouble."
Loss of habitat and fragmentation of sagebrush communities through development are major threats to sage grouse populations. But so are oil and gas wells, livestock grazing, invasive plant species, wildfire, roads and energy transmission lines.
Such disturbances destroy longtime leks, or mating grounds, where the males dance to attract females every spring, and suppress annual nesting.
When Fish and Wildlife leaders determined in 2010 that the greater sage grouse warranted protection, alarms bells sounded across the Intermountain West.
Government leaders, private business owners and public land users all banded together in what has been called the "greatest conservation effort of all time" crossing state borders and political dividing lines.
"A potential listing often focuses people's attention on the opportunities available to address the threats that could lead to a listing," said Theodore Stein, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some have joined the effort sportsmen, recreationists, ranchers and landowners because they believe an Endangered Species listing of sage grouse could limit their ability to enjoy outdoor activities and maintain traditional Western lifestyles.
Others including cattle ranchers and oil and gas companies worry a listing would limit the growth potential of their businesses.
But the fight also has made unusual allies of hunters and conservationists.
A poll released in fall 2014 from the National Wildlife Federation showed 9 out of 10 hunters support taking action to protect sage grouse habitat. And 84 percent back efforts that could lead to limits on energy development, grazing rights or access for motorized recreation.
The Bureau of Land Management and U.S Forest Service; Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Audubon Society; and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and ConocoPhillips all have joined SGI. More than 1,100 ranchers in the 11 states where the grouse is found also have enrolled with SGI.
SGI officials predict around 8 million acres of habitat will be protected by 2018, funded by an estimated $751 million already set aside.
"It is always better to work in an atmosphere where there is a common goal. And if that is to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing by reducing threats and supporting an abundance of the animal across the range," Stein said, "then that is a goal the service can completely get around."
Sage grouse rebellion • At the same time, the sage grouse has become a convenient bogeyman for anti-fed sentiment sweeping some states, including Utah. The looming federal listing deadline has become a rallying point.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan believes Utah wildlife managers can better monitor animals within the state.
State wildlife agencies, he says, have biologists with years of experience with native wildlife and the landscape. States also have more resources when it comes to putting boots on the ground and implementing projects.
"We are doing really good things for the birds and all the other species that share the landscape right now," he said. "Our ability to do that for sage grouse and the other wildlife would be much more limited if we had a new Endangered Species listing."
And Bishop argues federal wildlife managers are misusing the 1973 Endangered Species Act as a sort of backdoor land-management tool.
"One of the core questions about the Endangered Species Act is the purpose. If it is to rehabilitate a species, the way it has been administered, it has not done that," Bishop said. "It has become a mechanism for controlling lands. It's why it needs to be reformed.
"People are not using the act as protection of life," he added, "but as a control of the land."
Bishop accuses the Fish and Wildlife Service of using "weird science, inaccurate numbers and a small period of time" to show a sage grouse population in dire straits.
"Our fears are based on what they have done in the past," he said, "and if that is any indication, they will really come up with a stupid plan."
But others say Bishop's alarm is misplaced. They point to recent Wildlife Service decisions about two other grouse species.
Last November, federal wildlife managers listed the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The related species live in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. Just 4,700 of the birds remain. The entirety of the species is found in just 7 percent to 12 percent of its historic range.
Then last month, Fish and Wildlife announced it would not list the bistate or Mono Basin sage grouse, whose habitat straddles California and Nevada. Leaders in those states committed more than $45 million to restore grouse habitat during the next 15 years, which made a listing unnecessary, regional sage grouse coordinator Mary Grim told The Associated Press.
"The threats," Grim said, "are no longer of a magnitude that would require listing."
Observers say efforts to protect the bistate grouse are more comparable to the multistate campaign to discourage a listing of the greater sage grouse than the Gunnison listing.
Listing decision • Fish and Wildlife managers' decision will depend on the strength of the plans created by each of the 11 states where the greater sage grouse lives. Just last week, federal biologists questioned Wyoming's effort.
Defenders of Wildlife conservation vice president Don Barry says it's ultimately up to the states to determine whether the bird is listed.
"We only get to the place of a species being proposed to be listed if underlying state laws and conservation programs have failed," said Barry, who worked for nearly two decades at the U.S. Department of the Interior, including as chief counsel for Fish and Wildlife.
"When species are proposed to be listed, people will fight and oppose it for a while," he said. "When they realize it is still being proposed, the panic sets in and they scramble to try and throw everything together."
Sometimes, that leads to good results for the animal in question. "Well-intentioned people coming together with well-intentioned motives can turn things around."
He's not convinced that is the case, at least not yet, with the greater sage grouse. But, Barry warns, making the sage chicken a political pawn is not going to do anything to help save the species.
"One of the things I keep seeing with bills popping up is this effort to try and force the Endangered Species Act into a economic and political process," he said. "That is not how it was designed.
"Whether a species is endangered or threatened is a biological question, not an economical or political question."
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Greater sage grouse • by the numbers
• Largest native grouse species in North America
• Long-lived, ground-nesting resident game bird managed by state agencies
• Currently lives across 11 states and two Canadian provinces
• Range is 165 million acres, 257,000 square miles (Loss of 56% from historic range)
• Uses communal mating grounds called leks
• Annual home range can cover 230 square miles or more
• Current population estimates range from 200,000 – 500,000 individuals
• Estimated 30 percent decline in population since 1985
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service