(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
A recent column in the Glenwood Spring Post Independent is correctly titled: “Clock ticking on greater Sage Grouse decision,” and it discusses how even though Congress attempted to defund efforts to protect the species, the federal government is compelled and still on track to make a decision on listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act by this September. Indeed, the clock is ticking.
But despite this, there is also hopeful news lately on the grouse, at least some signs of progress toward gains in meaningful and on-the-ground protections for this unique and important species.
First, tangible measures to protect the grouse are being put in place on private lands through conservation agreements. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust recently completed a conservation easement on one of the largest working ranches in Northwest Colorado. Multiple partners contributed to the protection of 16,000 acres of key sage grouse habitat on the Cross Mountain Ranch in Moffat County, close to Dinosaur National Monument, as reported in the Steamboat Pilot:
In the easement document, reasons for conserving the land include a desire to preserve Moffat County’s infamous wide-open spaces. More importantly, it preserves thousands of acres of dense Greater sage grouse habitat.
Tim Griffiths, national coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Services’ Sage Grouse Initiative, said this particular parcel should be able to help conserve about 5,000 Greater sage grouse birds.
He also said the biggest threat to the Greater sage grouse species is fragmentation and conserving this piece of land creates a quarter-million acre checkerboard of public and private conserved land woven together.
“We just removed the threat of fragmentation in the one place in Colorado that has more birds than anywhere else in the state,” Griffiths said.
This tangible progress is being made through the partnerships of nonprofit organizations like the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, which secured the Moffat County agreement, with state agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the federal government programs, like the Sage Grouse Initiative.
“This easement demonstrates the power and leverage the new conservation programs in the farm bill can have to benefit sage grouse. It’s the locally driven conservation efforts like these that can help prevent the need for an endangered species listing,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, who championed passage of the conservation title of the farm bill in 2014.
And this news echoes similar accounts in other states where the greater sage grouse occurs: 650 acres protected in a recent conservation agreement in Nevada, and a new program launched to work with ranchers in sagebrush habitat across eastern Oregon.
Recently the two chairs of the Western Governors Association—Matt Mead, the Republican governor of Wyoming, and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, Democrat—sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, asking her to clarify what the federal government is doing given that Congressional Republicans voted to withhold funding for additional work on the grouse.
"We have invested countless hours and millions of dollars in habitat conservation, mapping and monitoring," said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead in the WGA letter to Jewell. "We consider the long-term survival of the greater sage grouse a key responsibility," said the pair, who co-chair WGA's sage grouse task force.
All this is encouraging, as it signals a willingness by the states to keep moving, and it models working together to find real solutions on the ground.
Now it is incumbent on all the stakeholders to turn that willingness into broader action, and replicate the models we have of success across the region. As Secretary Jewell said:
"We want to create an environment where a listing is not warranted," Jewell told the winter meeting of the WGA in Las Vegas last month. "We're in a period of epic collaboration. That's what is happening for sage grouse across the 11 states. We have incredible momentum so we can’t stop now; we need to get across the finish line."
Of course that has been the line for a long time, and the clock is still ticking on the sage grouse. It is hopeful to see progress, now we need results.