In 1885, the 27-year-old Theodore Roosevelt published Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, in which the future president wrote about stalking “the grouse of the Northern Plains,” including what he referred to as the “sage fowl.”
Today, that bird is commonly referred to as the greater sage-grouse. Its name isn’t the only thing that’s changed since Roosevelt’s day: Over the past century, the sage-grouse population has plummeted more than 90 percent as almost half of the American West’s sagebrush habitat has been lost to development, agriculture, wildfires, and exotic plant invasion.
Because the sage-grouse is what scientists call an indicator species for the health of the sage-steppe ecosystem and the 350 species that depend on it, government biologists have classified the sagebrush sea, as the area is known in North America, as one of our nation’s most imperiled ecosystems.
Now plans to save the sage-grouse and its habitat are under threat: The Interior Department is reconsidering the 2015 sage-grouse management plans designed to reduce habitat loss and recover grouse populations. Those habitat management plans grew out of a collaborative, science-based process, with significant opportunities for public involvement. The process sought—and achieved—a compromise among stakeholders, including sportsmen, Western governors and other elected officials, industry representatives, and conservationists.
The plans allow for energy development while furnishing protections for the sage steppe landscape, and provide for tailored approaches by individual states to balance those needs. Further, the plans had helped federal agencies avoid the need to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, which could have triggered more restrictive land use policies across the region.
The latest Interior Department move is a notice of intent that calls for public input to help formulate a new plan, which almost certainly would threaten habitat for the grouse, mule deer, pronghorn, elk, and hundreds of other species, and throw into doubt a policy that took a decade of compromise to formulate.
The department is also pursuing this new course before the 2015 plans even have a chance to take hold. While it’s possible they could be improved with some minor modifications, they must be based on current, credible science.
Perhaps that’s why numerous Western governors, including Wyoming’s Matt Mead (R) and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper (D), are cautioning against unraveling the existing management plans.
Good government solves, not creates, problems for its citizens, and — by balancing development with conservation across the intermountain West — the 2015 sage steppe policy did exactly that. If the Interior Department substantially revises these plans, it would undercut progress to reduce regional tensions and resolve resource allocation problems across the region.
Teddy Roosevelt was a great conservationist because he saw that our country’s landscapes, wildlife, and waters hold value not only for developers but also for all Americans, including sportsmen, conservationists, and others who love to spend time outdoors.
The sage steppe and the Grouse are among the places and species that help make America unique, and once they are gone we cannot get them back. By sticking with the 2015 plans and giving them a chance to work, the Interior Department can protect these vital lands, both for the wildlife that depend on them and for current and future generations of Americans.