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One of the most challenging and politically contentions issues in the west is also one of our greatest opportunities and an important investment for our future.

The greater sage grouse once numbered in the many millions across the west, but its population has been in steady decline over the last century. The species now numbers a few hundred thousand spread across 11 western states. While the bird’s population has been decreasing for many decades, this trend is not inevitable.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by September of next year whether or not the bird must receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. The listing decision, based on the species risk of extinction across its range, may lead to draconian measures that could adversely impact jobs and billions of dollars worth of economic activity in the West.

Avoiding this outcome is achievable, but it will not be easy. Management of sagebrush habitats is a long-term endeavor. Investing in responsible energy development and conservation is not only essential for our nation’s economy but also for the western way of life. We have the opportunity to design our own future – a future where energy development continues and the species survival is assured.

The 11 affected western states and the federal Bureau of Land Management must develop robust sage-grouse conservation plans that are sufficient to recover the bird in order to avoid listing the species under ESA’s protections. These plans will need to protect the most important, so-called “core” sage grouse habitat, particularly their mating grounds or “leks,” from disturbances like oil and gas production, wind farms, transmission lines and so forth. If disturbance of portions of this habitat cannot be avoided, it will mean “mitigating” the impacts by enhancing existing habitat or creating new habitat nearby. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock took a good first step with his recent executive order, but there is still more to be done to ensure conservation of the bird while balancing other land uses. State and federal BLM plans must adequately address the threats to sage grouse based on the unique differences and characteristics in Montana that may not be reflected in other state plans, like Wyoming for example.

Sportsmen leaders, along with a broad array of stakeholders from the energy, ranching and conservation communities, are strongly supporting this effort. Unfortunately, time is running out and not all states or BLM districts are on the same page with respect to developing adequate plans.

Based on my career experience, these conservation plans must not only be sound in character, but must include assurances that they will actually be implemented. The FWS cannot, by law, give serious consideration to plans that are based on a wing and a prayer.

As a former secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, former director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and lifelong sportsman who has hunted throughout the west for years, I know that the sage grouse is not the only sagebrush-dependent species facing challenges. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope and many other species rely on this habitat. Conserving it will benefit all these species and the sportsmen, outfitters, tourists, birdwatchers and businesses whose livelihood is based on outdoor recreation.

Ultimately, the decision to list the sage grouse is likely to end up in a federal court, since one interest group or another is expected to sue depending on the recommendation of the FWS. If the state and BLM plans and assurances are inadequate, then a judge may require that the sage-grouse be listed, and we will have missed an opportunity to chart our own destiny, one that allows responsible energy development and conservation to proceed hand in hand.

Steve Williams served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2002-2005, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks from 1995-2001, and is the current president of the Wildlife Management Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in wildlife biology.

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