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Stepping up for sage grouse: Partnerships play key role in Endangered Species Act decision

The iconic Western bird takes center stage in collaborative restoration efforts across 11 states.

On Sept 22, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reversed its previous course and decided not to list the greater sage-grouse — an iconic Western bird and indicator species for sagebrush steppe ecosystems — as an endangered species.

“This decision is not like any Endangered Species Act decision that many people have been a part of,” said Brett Brownscombe, Interim Deputy Director of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. “It’s a real vote in favor of collaborative conservation.”

Instead, sage-grouse restoration will depend on the continued success of public, private collaborations. That was a sentiment championed by the entire panel of our recent Forest Forum that examined this historic U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision.

Like salmon and buffalo, sage grouse were once a symbol of plenty — flocks darkening the sky across the American West.

Since contact, their habitat has decreased by half and their numbers by 90 percent.

Bureau of Land Management Deputy State Director Mike Haske said of the collaborative work in the past three years: “I’ve been with BLM for 37 years and I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. It was an unprecedented effort.”

For decades, Oregon has been a national leader in setting precedents for endangered species policy — from the Northern spotted owl to Pacific coho. Now, as federal, state, and private interests work together to address challenges and opportunities around future listings, this partnership model may well become a state export to national conservation efforts.

Haske and Brownscombe, along with their fellow panelists, State Conservationist Ron Alvarado with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Paul Henson, Oregon State Supervisor with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, were active in the Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership (SageCon), which worked to build an “all lands, all threats” approach to species restoration. The collaborative group included representation from nearly 50 groups and involved state and federal agencies, nonprofits, trade organizations, and private interests.

A male sage grouse
A male sage-grouse displays his plumage. Photo by Rick McEwan

Sage grouse are entirely dependent on sagebrush. The sage steppe, where they migrate, feed, breed, and overwinter, is increasingly under pressure from the presence of Western juniper — a native tree species acting suspiciously invasive thanks in part to climate change, fire suppression, and overgrazing.

Normally a competitor to juniper, overgrazed grasses and forbes opened the door for the opportunistic tree. At the same time, fire suppression allowed this new generation of juniper along with a variety of invasive species to flourish unchecked.

Statewide efforts to mitigate the impacts of fire exclusion, presence of invasive species, and juniper encroachment are ambitious:

The BLM, which manages 20 percent of the 63 million acres of sage-grouse habitat in Oregon, plans to mitigate 12,000 acres of invasive plants per year for the next decade. They currently treat about 5,000 acres per year. Additional restoration goals over the next 10 years include thinning more than 40,000 acres of juniper per year, and treating 53,000 acres per year of sage brush.

While federal agencies manage two-thirds of current sage-grouse habitat, Haske noted that most of the habitat the birds use for brooding — breeding and raising young — is on private land.

That’s where the Natural Resources Conservation Service comes in.

According to Alvarado, his team used to run lean and mean. But with the implications of a possible sage-grouse listing, a bird that spans 126 million acres across 11 states, the agency decided to staff up.

In Oregon, under the auspices of the SageCon partnership and in concert with 120 willing landowners, NRCS has been able to treat more than 200,000 acres across five counties since 2011.

“Prior to that, we were addressing habitat, but we were treating 2,500 to 3,000 acres a year,” said Alvarado. But, he said, their efforts would have stopped dead in their tracks without willing private partners. Thirty percent of all sage-grouse habitat in the state is on private property.

“I can’t say enough about the ranching community for coming in, stepping up, and providing leadership,” said Alvarado.

Panelists also pointed out that planned increases in landscape level restoration will be a boon to local economies, bringing much needed jobs to the typically unstable rural economy. However, they said, assessing the economic impacts of restoration will depend on close monitoring by partners across all agencies.

Paul Henson noted that if U.S. Fish & Wildlife had listed sage grouse as endangered, various interest groups would likely have ceased working together, reversing important progress in recent recovery efforts.

While September’s decision was an historic one, Henson also indicated that keeping sage grouse off the Endangered Species list will depend on all parties following through with their commitments and the continued success of boots-on-the-ground work in each of the 11 states indicated. The decision will be up for review by U.S. Fish & Wildlife in 2020.

Forest Forums are hosted by Ecotrust and Oregon State University College of Forestry.