When naturalist George Bird Grinnell visited Wyoming in 1886 greater sage grouse were so numerous they converted the blue of the prairie sky to what he described as “a moving mass of gray.”
But soon this iconic bird of the West was in steep decline. Habitat was ruined by fire suppression, which allowed an invasion of conifers, by conversion of sagebrush to cropland and pastureland, by subdivisions and by gas and oil extraction. Sage grouse still exist in 11 of the 14 states they once occupied, but at a tiny fraction of natural abundance.
By the late 1990s there was a push to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act — requiring states to hand management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with catastrophic results for local culture, other species and with near-certain emasculation of the ESA by Congress.
The Largest Landscape Planning Effort in History of Wildlife Management
The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) — designed to recover the bird before listing becomes necessary — is a joint venture by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and hundreds of other diverse partners (many former adversaries). So far it has permanently protected 723 square miles of high-quality sagebrush habitat through voluntary conservation easements and cleared another 750 square miles of invasive conifers. SGI is the largest landscape planning effort in the history of wildlife management.
A poll commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has determined that in sage-grouse states 84 percent of hunters advocate protection of the bird’s habitat. While sage-grouse hunting is still legal in seven states, opportunities are extremely limited.
Why would sportsmen care?
For two reasons: First, for most sportsmen hunting is as much about participation in nature (nature with all its parts) as taking from nature. And second, the great sage sea sustains not just sage grouse but at least 350 other animal and plant species. For example, elk, pronghorn and mule deer depend on sagebrush in winter. “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” declares Miles Moretti, CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, a SGI partner.
An Uncertain Fate
Despite the stunning success of SGI, it faces an uncertain future under the new administration, especially with ongoing budget slashes. In 2018 the Farm Bill will be renewed. All negotiations for what will be in that bill are happening now. The Farm Bill will determine the fate of SGI. Conservationists need to push their legislators for sustained easement funding.
In January House Natural Resources chair Rob Bishop (R-UT) filed legislation that would authorize governors to dispense with any provisions in federal sage-grouse plans not to their liking. A month later Jim Risch (R-ID) filed a companion bill in the Senate. Sportsmen joined other conservationists last year to fend off a similar provision in the National Defense Authorization Act and are pledging again to fight bills or amendments that would derail the sage-grouse conservation plans written by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service with input by the states.
“These federal plans have been worked on for years by a wide variety of people,” says Judi Kohler, communications manager for NWF’s Rocky Mountain Region. “In our opinion they’re the best game in town.”
If SGI endures, it will mark a new approach to recovering imperiled species — an approach that considers needs of not just one animal but the entire ecosystem with which it interacts and on which it depends.