Interior Department biologists have recommended against adding the sage grouse to the endangered species list, a determination that could wind up benefiting natural gas and oil producers but add to environmentalists’ concerns.
A coalition of farmers, ranchers, oil and gas developers and other businesses praised the recommendation as potentially historic.
“If this ends up being the final decision, it will (be) the biggest win the West has seen in decades in its never-ending war to control its own destiny,” said Jim Sims, vice president of Partnership for the West.
"It is a huge win for the sage grouse," he added, "because it means that this bird is not going to have the noose of the Endangered Species Act jerked tight around its neck — a law which over its 30-year history has failed to restore species to health 99 times out of 100."
Environmentalists among the groups that sent the department three petitions to list the sage grouse as endangered were upset.
“By not listing the species, damaging activities will be allowed to continue on much of the sagebrush steppe, to the detriment of sage grouse and scores of other wildlife species,” said Mark Salvo, who directs a sage grouse and sagebrush campaign for American Lands Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Population 1/100th of past size
At stake is a bird whose numbers have declined to as few as 142,000, as well as the use of great expanses of Western sagebrush that provide cover and food between 4,000 and 9,000 feet elevations.
At one time there may have been as many as 16 million of the birds in the Western United States and Canada, the government estimates.
The bird, North America’s largest grouse, is chicken-like, with a long, pointed tail. Usually weighing two to seven pounds, it is a ground-dweller among an estimated 770,000 square miles of sage brush in 11 states, including much of the Rocky Mountain’s natural gas fields. Still, because of farming and development, that is only about half its historic range.
Steve Williams, director of the department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, now must decide within 25 days whether to accept the biologists’ recommendation and deny the bird federal protections that come from being added to the list.
Williams would only say that the biologists “conducted a thorough review of the best available scientific information and, in their view, recommend that the greater sage grouse does not warrant the special protections of the act across its range.”
Interior favors private efforts
He and Interior Secretary Gale Norton have made no secret they generally prefer to rely on private conservation work and joint efforts by federal agencies, Western states and local governments, rather than ordering new restrictions on harming wildlife or using its habitat.
“We must continue and wherever possible expand those efforts,” Williams said Friday.
In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Norton said, “Lots of people have gotten involved to try to find ways of protecting the sage grouse without having to list it on the endangered species list.”
Extending federal protections to the sage grouse would have “very significant potential impact” on development, she said. Last month, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees oil and gas leases and much of the sage grouse habitat, issued a conservation plan.
Williams’ announcement was coordinated with the Western Governors’ Association meeting Friday in San Diego on endangered species issues. In July, the governors sent Williams documents suggesting the sage grouse could be conserved without federal protections.
Fish and Wildlife Service background on sage grouse is online at mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/birds/sagegrouse