In Idaho, Historic Sage Grouse Decision Garners Critics And Fans

Sep 23, 2015

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the much-anticipated decision on Twitter Tuesday morning, using the hashtag #WildlifeWin.

“Because of an unprecedented effort by dozens of partners  across 11 western states," says Sec. Jewell in a video, "the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the greater sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

Jewell and other federal leaders congratulated groups that usually don’t see eye-to-eye, but have set aside differences to try and bring the sage grouse back from the brink. The work has been called the greatest collaborative effort to save a single species – ever. Over the last five years, millions of dollars have been spent on programs to improve the sagebrush ecosystem for the grouse and the 300 other species that depend on it.

One of the ranchers who has used some of that money to make habitat improvements in the Lemhi Valley is Idaho State Rep. Merrill Beyeler, R-Leadore. He praised the decision.

“I think it recognizes and respects the collaborative work that’s been done in the West," says Beyeler, "and the state of Idaho and the very local level.”

Some conservation groups including the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club applauded the news, along with recreation groups and energy industry leaders.

But as wide-reaching as the collaboration has been, not everyone is pleased. Ken Cole is the Idaho director of Western Watersheds Project. The environmental group sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, settling in 2010 which forced this month's decision.

“We’re disappointed," says Cole. "We think that the plans are not adequate for protecting sage grouse.”

Cole thinks in the end, the decision not to list the bird was more about politics than science. For instance, he says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t take the threats from ranching seriously enough. Cattle grazing is identified only as a secondary threat to the sage grouse.

“Industry doesn’t want them to be protected. They don’t want the consultations that the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to do for all of the projects. But that’s what’s needed.”

The state of Idaho is one of the presumed winners in this issue. The state has worked for years  toward the goal of saving the species and Idaho jobs.

Dustin Miller has been in charge of that effort in Governor Butch Otter’s office.

“Well the Governor of course is pleased that the Secretary recognizes the effort that has gone into collaborative conservation to preserve this species and preclude the need to list,” says Miller.

But if there was cheering in the governor’s office after the decision, it didn’t last long. Miller says his boss is upset with restrictions placed on the land to avoid the listing.

“[Gov. Otter] really questions how Interior got to that not-warranted finding through these overly restrictive land-use plans.”

Miller says during the early stages of the collaboration, Idaho and federal officials worked well together on finding the best ways to protect sage grouse, while not harming the state’s ranching and energy sectors.

But earlier this year, that changed. The Interior Department approved a management plan that restricted cattle grazing more than a previous draft, and put more regulations on energy and mining development. Miller says that was frustrating because the state felt like it had been asked to focus on wildfire and invasive species instead.  

Tuesday, Miller wouldn’t deny that the state could end up suing over the restrictions.  

Boise State University political science professor John Freemuth says with so much on the line, some stakeholders were bound to be disappointed.  

“There are groups who don’t think it’s good enough," says Freemuth. "And welcome to American politics, unfortunately.”

Freemuth was part of a national task force that worked to protect sage grouse from wildfire. And he thinks the federal government did its best to create compromise over one of the most complicated environmental issues in the West.

“I think this is a sincere effort. Yes, there’s pressure but it’s an emotional and intellectual pressure.  Not ‘we’ve got finesse this to not list’. I don’t see that in Sally Jewell and all these other folks that have been working so hard. I just don’t see that."

Freemuth says it’s now up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor sage grouse numbers. Meanwhile, he expects environmental groups to sue the agency over its decision.

One thing is clear: this isn't the last we've heard of the fight to save the sage grouse.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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