Wildlife victory? Or devastating loss?

‘Big Greens,’ the oil and gas industry and the Governor go into spin mode

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Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media, LLC

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the department’s decision not to list the greater sagegrouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as either threatened or endangered, but instead rely on 11 different state and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation management plans, as well as private conservation efforts to protect the bird across the Western U.S.

The Department of the Interior (DOI), along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Jared Polis and groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Western Energy Alliance, the Wilderness Society and many others, tout the decision not to list the greater sage-grouse as a wildlife victory — as evidenced by continual postings across social media using the hashtag “wildlifewin.”

But not everyone agrees with this sentiment. 

“The Department of the Interior is planting its flag of victory in a steaming pile of inadequacy, and it’s not going to stand,” says Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group that has been pushing the federal government to list the greater sage-grouse under the ESA for several years. He refers to gaps in the federal and state conservation plans that make them potentially insufficient to provide the level of protection the sage-grouse, and its sagebrush habitat, really need in order to survive.

In July, Boulder Weekly, published an in-depth look at these management plans and their shortcomings, particularly how they relate to the oil and gas industry’s effect on the sage-grouse. Although sage-grouse live in 11 different states, oil and gas development remains the largest threat to the bird in Colorado. Put succinctly, BW found the language in the plans vague and likely to allow continued oil and gas development in the sagebrush habitat. Plus many of the mitigation efforts outlined in the plans, such as the Colorado Habitat Exchange, rely simply on voluntary efforts and fall short of strong regulations that could truly curb habitat destruction. While the majority of stakeholders want to praise the collaborative results of the conservation efforts, our investigation conclusively found the plans inadequate to address the continued decline of the greater sage-grouse.

Making the recent decision even more critical, as an umbrella species, the health of the sage-grouse population is indicative of over 350 other species that call the sagebrush habitat home. As these landscapes continue to be disturbed, and destroyed, by continual oil and gas development in Colorado, the West as we know it may be at stake.

Although the final management plans are a vast improvement over previous conservation efforts, “They’re still going to allow levels of development that are going to drive sage-grouse populations to go extinct and are going to cause the disappearance of other wildlife species as well,” Molvar says. “Here was a great opportunity to solve some of the West’s most serious environmental problems in one fell swoop, and the administration bungled it.”

Molvar says WildEarth Guardians, along with its environmental partners will be scrutinizing the “legal inadequacies” in the federal and state plans to see if there is legitimate recourse to the DOI’s decision through the courts.