By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
Years ago I was hunting sharptails in a remote corner of eastern Montana with visiting friends from Texas. Earlier in the trip, one of them had expressed interest in shooting a sage grouse, a bird he’d never seen before, to have mounted. When a huge, lumbering bird rose in front of the dogs, he stood and stared until I shouted out the ID; and when he finally fired, the bird hit the ground with an audible thud. Mission accomplished—and he still refers to that sage grouse as the highlight of his trip to the prairie.
The last time I reported on the greater sage grouse (“The Once & Future Sage Grouse,” Jan/Feb ’16), the subject was what is now referred to as the 2015 Sage Grouse Plans, a remarkable compromise among multiple stakeholders including hunters, ranchers, development interests and the general public that kept the bird from being listed under the terms of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), a voluntary set of guidelines agreed to by private landowners, was a key component, but the agreement also included extensive protection on federal land managed by the BLM and Forest Service. No one got everything they wanted, but most got terms they could live with—and the future of a threatened gamebird looked brighter than it had in decades.
Perhaps that was too good to last. The agreement called for prioritization of federal oil and gas leases toward areas of high development potential and low value to wildlife and away from critical sage grouse habitat with limited oil and gas potential. In the fall of 2017 the Department of the Interior (DOI), now headed by former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, announced its intention to amend classification of millions of acres of public land throughout the West to allow leasing in areas that had been protected. The stated rationale was that mining and drilling only affect “0.1 percent of sage-grouse-occupied” land, a figure distinctly at odds with most independent studies. This directive was issued with little or no opportunity for public input. (In September 2018 a federal court blocked an administration directive curtailing public comment on oil and gas leasing decisions.)
Another key component of the 2015 plans was “off-site compensatory mitigation,” which allowed development interests in crucial habitat to compensate by paying for restoration of comparable land in other areas as long as there was no net loss of conservation value. This became an important aspect of many state management plans. In July 2018 the DOI issued a directive severely limiting the way federal lands can be used for mitigation and amending the “no net loss” provision. This industry-friendly directive went over favorably in some Western states but not in others. Governors in Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Oregon—representing both political parties—expressed immediate concerns for the future of their states’ management plans.
Litigation was likely inevitable. In April 2018 the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watershed Project filed a suit charging that the Bureau of Land Management had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy Management Act by modifying oil and gas lease provisions on public land. Another suit was filed at the same time by the National Wildlife Federation, Montana Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society and Audubon Society claiming that new federal policies ignored key provisions of the 2015 management plans.
While it’s easy to get lost in the blizzard of directives, organizations and conflicting data, the driving force that brought so many disparate parties together behind the 2015 plans was the desire to avoid having sage grouse listed as endangered. Protections enacted under these plans were mandatory only on public land, but restrictions imposed by an ESA listing apply to private land as well and would have proved onerous for farmers and ranchers (not to mention hunters) throughout the West, a possibility that motivated many reluctant interests to negotiate. The 2015 plans represented one of the most endangered species of all in today’s political environment: an effective compromise.
The terms of the agreement call for an automatic review of the birds’ status in 2020. If sage grouse populations haven’t stabilized, the result still could be an endangered-species listing and all that comes with it. That determination will be made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and a decision to list could be overturned only by highly unusual Congressional action.
Western states have responded in different ways to these developments. In my home state of Montana sage grouse recovery is managed by the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team (MSGOT), under the authority of Governor Steve Bullock. MSGOT still is adhering to the terms of the 2015 plans on state land and private land owned by voluntarily cooperating farmers and ranchers while negotiating with state BLM officials.
I have spent nearly 50 years in sage grouse country and have enjoyed hunting the birds. I seldom hunt them anymore, however, simply because they don’t provide much challenge on the wing. That said, I still feel that sage grouse hunting is an experience that every wingshooter should have an opportunity to enjoy at least once. That won’t happen if the big birds officially become listed as endangered species.
For more information about the situation or to get involved, contact one of the following: Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Montana Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers or Sage Grouse Initiative.