Notes from the International Sage-Grouse Forum

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:11/19/2014 Updated:06/23/2015

Last week, I attended the International Sage-Grouse Forum in Salt Lake City, Utah. As an inveterate note taker, here are the salient points I heard and noted.

The conference was opened by Terry Messmer of Utah State University who organized the conference, followed by Utah Director of Wildlife Resources, Greg Sheehan. The conference was subtitled: “Conservation through science, management and local community involvement.” After sitting through two days of speakers, I would characterize the presentations as being heavy on science and federal management plans with a pinch of community involvement; the session I participated in was the only session where private landowners were featured. Pointedly Messmer mentioned “psychological rights” referring to state and local efforts and in a veiled reference to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) listing of the Gunnison sage-grouse the day before. He concluded: “We need to have courage to admit we look for answers in the wrong place.”

The morning session was dominated by two long presentations by U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tidwell, who stated that the two main threats to the greater sage-grouse are “fire and invasive species, and energy development in eastern part of range,” but then averred that listing “adds additional challenges.” He ended his discourse with the admonition that “it is essential to find ways to keep ranchers ranching, as they provide more benefits to sage grouse than I’ve ever seen.”

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Deputy Director Ed Roberson followed and described the numbing process of preparing fourteen BLM plans for public review this coming spring. He did stress the importance of “mesic cover” – moderately wet habitat – which is almost all found on private lands, as described by Patrick Donnelly with the Intermountain West Joint Venture/FWS and his co-authors Dave Naugle and Jeremy Maestas with the Sage Grouse Initiative and Christian Hagen with Oregon State University in a paper which is summarized here.

FWS Regional Director Noreen Walsch followed and offered platitudes:  “What is good for the herd is good for the bird,” and stated the Service listed the Gunnison sage-grouse in order to treat the patient before it requires emergency room attention. She said they expected to get sued and the “Service is now spending more money, and time on litigation than on recovery.” Gee, I wonder who negotiated these wholesale listings?

Utah’s Governor Herbert wrapped up the morning session. He spoke in measured terms but he was clearly unhappy with the Gunnison listing by FWS.

He stated: “that at the [Western Governors Association] meetings next month I hope to come up with some solutions to the listing issue. States should take the lead on species recovery. DC and Feds represent a false hope. We need to be good stewards of the earth, but the FWS approach reminds him of Henry Ford: you can have a car in any color as long as it is black. One size fits all does not work in the west, where you have unique situations and states should be in forefront…the propensity in DC is for regulatory oversight. It is too easy to say: we do not trust the people.”

“I do trust people. The idea that one size fits all is counterproductive. Listing puts a number of productive programs at risk. The BLM planning approach is one size fits all and too homogenized. States need flexibility and we should avoid listing and respect state positions. DC, you are a junior partner. The Gunnison listing concerns me, as I view it as short sighted and a step backward. The aggressive program approach by the states is being ignored by FWS. This is discouraging and destroys faith. States need time to show their recovery plans are working. Environmentalists are using ESA to stifle development. States have a role to take the lead.”

I spoke to Director Sheehan after the break following the Gov’s speech and he said he toned down the Gov’s remarks. I would have loved to hear the original draft!

In my second session, I quoted Gov. Hickenlooper’s (CO-D) statement issued the eve of the conference: “We are deeply disappointed that FWS chose to ignore extraordinary efforts over 2 decades by state, local governments, business leaders and environmentalists…This is a major blow to voluntary conservation and we will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing.” Senators Bennett and Udall issued comparable statements.

Dave Naugle and Tim Griffiths of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) presented on behalf of the Sage Grouse Initiative. This was, in my opinion, far and away the best presentation of the conference. It summarized their on the ground research and follow up on management programs with ranchers across the 11 western sage-grouse states. After 4 years, they have 1,119 ranchers enrolled. They mentioned “that in the landowner community privacy is a big deal – they have an exemption in the Farm Bill to safeguard privacy. They are seeking massive implementation…The ranching community does not tell the world how they are doing.” They stressed that private wetlands provide brood habitat and that if conifers are over 40% of habitat there are no leks. Their research found: “Lek distribution is dependent on summer wetland habitat. Broods need the grocery store close by! Leks are clustered within 6 miles of wetlands; 85% of leks with greatest number of birds are next to mesic areas”. Griffiths stressed the importance of producers (i.e. ranchers) telling their own story. See our blog about Utah rancher Jay Tanner.

My session featured three ranchers: aforementioned Jay Tanner from northwest Utah who was fabulous, Lee Hemmer from the Foster Creek Conservation District in central Washington, and Saskatchewan rancher Miles Anderson. Miles embodied the shrewdness of the ranching community. His ranch abuts a Canadian federal park and his cows graze back and forth. Commenting on his back and forth interactions with federal biologists, he noted; “Agency people think ranchers are stupid.” In the question and answer session Tanner admitted that federal agency folks rarely listen to people on the ground. “I’m an idiot to their biologists. We need to get agency folk to listen to farmers and ranchers.” In my second session I alluded to this, and how the three ranchers in our session represented 120 years of accumulated knowledge and on the ground stewardship. I call this reservoir of intellectual stewardship: cranial capital.

With 29 years of experience in the field, Tom Christianson of Wyoming Game & Fish reviewed state sage grouse population trends for Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. Wyoming has 1800 leks, where population trends are downward since 2006 heights due to drought and inclement weather. But populations are up 10% in 2014, seeing increased reproduction. The state has 180 projects on the ground with local working groups. Don Kemner, of Idaho Fish & Game, gave a synopsis of Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Idaho sage-grouse populations. Again, populations peaked in 2005-2006 from 1996 lows, and have been slowly rebounding since.

On day two Jason Weller, Chief of NRCS was the headliner. He repeated Messmer’s citation of the Department of Defense’s National Guard being an apt model for federal and state management of sage grouse. He pitched the importance of “working landscapes where landowners bear the costs of keeping landscapes intact.” Keeping family farms and ranches working keeps local stores, banks in business and supports a community economy. Weller said, “it has been a difficult week with the Fish and Wildlife decision, but Ranchers: NRCS has your back!”

“What ranchers have delivered is incredible… I tip my hat to you and we want you to be successful.” He called ranchers “an investment in families, community, the core fiber of America.”  He declared SGI is designed (1) to help the sustainability of working ranches, (2) put the right practices on the ground in the right places, and (3) assess the effectiveness of those practices. To date, 1,119 ranches are enrolled in SGI, covering 6000 square miles of habitat, 276,000 acres of conifers removed, 573 miles of fences removed, reducing 3,000 bird strikes annually. A total of 4.4 million acres treated to restore or improve sage-grouse habitat.

Nick Owens of Anadarko: Anadarko is largest land owner in Wyoming and holds largest gas field in Utah. According to Owens, the 2010 listing petition grossly overstates oil and gas development impacts. Many impacts occurred before the recent onslaught of oil and gas development. Today single horizontal wells are replacing up to 16 vertical wells. New technologies are reducing drilling impacts by 70%.

Closing comments and wrap up were done by Virgil Moore, Director of Idaho Fish & Game. He stated: “My bias is to do sage-grouse recovery without listing. Do it with state leadership. We have been doing it since the 50s, 60s and 70s.” He used as an example the successful recovery of Yellowstone cutthroat trout; both the trout and grouse have site fidelity and both need riparian areas. States have created a collaborative effort following the listing petition in 2010, and have been full throttle since 2011.

He sees BLM and USFS implementing their sage grouse plans by 2015, and these plans will reflect state efforts to address local land needs. FWS will in turn find a sage-grouse listing unwarranted. He quoted Noreen Walsh saying, “reasonable people can differ,” and we’ll be reasonable and win in court! He agreed with his peer Greg Sheehan of Utah that state leadership with adaptive management is key to the recovery of sage-grouse. He cited the states bringing online an integrated data base, mitigation systems providing true compensation, and a focus on local working groups for on the ground implementation. I spoke to Virgil afterward and to Sheehan as well  and without quoting them directly, it is clear they are fed up with FWS leadership in DC, and no longer feel it worth communicating directly.

We are at a pivot point in the west, and unnecessarily so. As I reflect on this most recent listing and the listing of the lesser prairie chicken last spring the following occurs to me. First FWS does not have an iota of staff or financial resources to drive recovery for either species. To date recovery success has only been achieved for 2% of species listed. Second, in the current, post-election cycle with Congress returning to a normal budget and Appropriation bill’s schedule, you will see reduced funding and FWS has already reduced funding for the Partners program , their only outreach to private land owners - recall that brood habitat is 80% on private land range wide! Third, federal science used to justify listing pales before state generated data and science. Fourth, in the past 30 years federal interagency coordination has degenerated to nothing – today it is dysfunctional and negligible with the single exception of NRCS’ Sage Grouse Initiative. Fifth, FWS offices across the nation are close to mutiny with the burden placed on their offices by the onrush of listings and accumulated regulatory structure. Today ESA is being driven by listing and the recovery bus has gone through the rails off the road into a ditch where it lies out of kilter.

Final observations: ESA is over 40 years old and into implementation. The world and on the ground conservation have changed dramatically during the interim. State conservation programs have grown robustly; FWS exhibits a decline of research and management leadership. One thing that struck me throughout the conference was each speaker alluded to the importance of private lands for the sage grouse life cycle. Sage grouse inhabit 60% public land, 40% private, generally. It is 50%/50% in Utah. However this belies calorie intake. Sage grouse lek on higher ground then go to wetlands - mesic habitat that speakers repeatedly cited – from June to September. That is where the brood habitat is concentrated 80% on private lands. However, with the singular exception of the Sage Grouse Initiative, none of the federal agencies optimize collaboration with private land owners nor have a strategic design to coordinate with private landowners abutting their federal lands. The second issue that befuddles me is FWS’ current orientation to ignore and penalize state and private sector initiatives for species recovery as in the case of both lesser prairie chicken and Gunnison sage-grouse. In both cases extraordinary efforts have been made to stabilize and implement on the ground recovery, yet FWS does not embrace these successful efforts and continues to implement species by species listings.


re: Notes from the International Sage-Grouse Forum
By: amos eno on: 06/23/2015

Mark, No harshness intended to FWS field-level staff who I have always supported heartily. The pressure points here are outside the service both coming and going. The point is once listed, how do you get to Recovery? You need carrots as well as sticks. See Malpais post.

re: Notes from the International Sage-Grouse Forum
By: Mark Brunson on: 12/15/2014

I also attended this conference we sat next to each other the first morning but I didn't get a chance to re-introduce myself. I agree with most of what you said but I wonder if you aren't being a bit harsh on field-level FWS folks. I was struck by Director Walsh's comment that the original listing recommendation for Gunnison Sage-Grouse had been Endangered but they went with Threatened and invoked the 4d rule to try to avoid penalizing landowners who have been engaging in voluntary conservation. It's not everything we could hope for, but it does seem the Service is trying to walk a fine line to balance pressures from DC and some in the environmental community for strong regulation vs. the states' efforts at grassroots collaborative conservation. One can see the glass as half empty as Govs. Herbert and Hickenlooper are doing or half full. Having worked in the Northwest during the spotted owl era, I see what's going on now as what passes for progress in the federal government.