Governors: Leave sage grouse conservation up to states

Leaders from Western states focus on keeping bird off endangered species list

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

Published Jun 14, 2014 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — The Western Governors’ Association has embraced a plan to leave sage grouse conservation efforts up to states in an effort to keep the bird off the endangered species list.

On Wednesday, the association, of which Oregon is a member, passed a resolution putting forward its position, which noted that Western states are proactively engaged in species conservation as an alternative to regulation under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“ESA listing decisions have real economic impacts for state and local governments through restriction on rangeland grazing, hunting, tourism and development of resources on public and private lands. The negative economic impacts of federal ESA decisions fall solely on states, local communities, businesses, jobs, and private property owners,” the resolution states.

State and multi-state conservation plans should create “a regulatory presumption by federal agencies” that sage grouse should not be listed, the resolution said. Federal agencies can consult as partners, but should not dictate policy, it said.

Last month, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced the Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act, which specifies that conservation efforts for the bird will remain a state-driven undertaking for 10 years. Eleven Republican House members have signed on as co-sponsors to Gardner’s bill, although Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, whose district contains extensive sage grouse habitat, is not one of them.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced similar legislation in Congress’ upper chamber. Enzi’s bill has attracted six co-sponsors, all of them Republicans.

On Friday, Allen Freemyer, president of the Western Grouse Coalition, praised both the Western Governors’ Association resolution and the congressional efforts for emphasizing the need for states to lead conservation efforts.

“We think that’s the better way to go,” he said.

Various partners, including states, local governments, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, ranchers, industry stakeholders and private citizens have spent $350 million and reserved more than 3.8 million acres of private land as sage grouse habitat, he said.

Individually, states can tailor their conservation efforts to local conditions, which a top-down, one-size-fits-all federal listing cannot, he said.

With 530,000 sage grouse across 165 million acres in 11 states, conditions vary greatly, he said. In some places, risk of wildfire, exacerbated by invasive cheatgrass, poses the biggest threat to the bird, while in others, pinyon and juniper trees have encroached on habitat.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts sage grouse on the endangered species list, all of the cooperation among stakeholders will disappear, and resources instead will be spent on litigation, Freemyer said.

The governors’ association will help coordinate efforts within and between the states, which means federal regulation isn’t needed, he said.

“We do think there’s going to be a lot of consistency across the states,” he said. “These plans aren’t going to vary drastically,” but they are going to be able to pinpoint conservation needs for different sites.

“That’s something that a FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) listing is not going to be able to do,” he said. “Let the states craft specific plans that address the birds and the habitat in their state.”

In 2010, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, launched the Sage Grouse Initiative, a multipartner effort built around sustainable ranching. The initiative hopes to improve the lot of sage grouse enough so that it is not placed on the endangered species list in 2015, when Fish and Wildlife must make its final determination.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees 57 million acres of sage grouse habitat, but about 40 percent of the bird’s natural habitat is on privately owned lands, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com