At a meeting with western governors today, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell applauded the unprecedented federal-state cooperation on planning efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse but emphasized that much work still needs to be done by both the federal government and the states in advance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's September 2015 deadline to determine if the species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"Thanks to our partnership with states throughout the range of the greater sage-grouse, we have made tremendous progress analyzing and planning landscape-level strategies that could lessen the threats to the bird and conserve its sage-brush habitat," said Jewell. "At the same time, we are not yet where we need to be and it is time for both the states and the federal government to redouble our efforts so that we can have effective conservation efforts in place before a listing determination must be made."
Jewell highlighted important steps that have been taken including publication before the end of the year of draft changes to 98 resource management plans by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service that are expected to be finalized next year following a public comment period. She emphasized that conservation efforts on state and private lands need to be accelerated to mitigate the threats to the bird.
"The states, too, must complete and begin to implement their own plans for state and private lands on a similar timeline," she said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service needs substantial certainty that these plans will both be in place and effective as it considers the biological and legal issues related to a listing decision."
Among other issues, the Service is seeking continued state involvement in determining, based upon the best available science, whether sufficient measures are in place to ameliorate the effects of development and other disturbances of greater sage-grouse habitat as well as the threat posed by invasive species and more frequent fire cycles.
Two years ago, then-Secretary Ken Salazar and western governors formed the Sage Grouse Task Force to work together on a cooperative, landscape-level approach to conserving the species across the West. The Task Force includes a representative of the governor of each of the 11 greater sage-grouse states plus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Task Force has met frequently since being formed. At the request of the Task Force, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assembled a Conservation Objectives Team made up of state and federal sage-grouse experts to assess the conservation needs of the species across its range. The BLM also assembled a National Technical Team that included state and federal scientists to advise its land management planning efforts.
Jewell emphasized the importance of this holistic and cooperative approach. "We will only be successful if we work together across the landscape to achieve our common conservation goals," she said.
Earlier in the day in a speech before the Western Governors Association, Jewell highlighted her first Secretarial Order to establish a Department-wide mitigation strategy to encourage balanced development through landscape-level planning on federal lands.
"Our goal is to have a strategy in place that provides consistency and efficiency as we review and permit new energy and other infrastructure development activities, at the same time ensuring that we are effectively conserving our nation's valuable natural and cultural resources," she said.
The greater sage-grouse is a large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling bird, up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds. The birds are found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food. They are well-known for their elaborate mating ritual and an iconic species of the remaining sagebrush landscapes.
The greater sage-grouse is currently found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Habitat fragmentation and destruction across much of the species' range has contributed to significant population declines over the past century. If current trends persist, many local populations may disappear in the next several decades, with the remaining fragmented population vulnerable to extinction. Taking actions to conserve the species will also restore the health of native sage steppe ecosystem that support local economies and communities in addition to big game species, upland birds and other wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service previously determined that the listing of the species as a threatened or endangered species was warranted but precluded by other conservation priorities. In accordance with a settlement agreement, the agency has until September 2015 to determine if the species should be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.