Continuing grouse conservation - Wildlife managers, governments prepare for listing decisionWritten by Saige Albert
In the two months leading up to the Greater sage grouse listing decision, wildlife managers, state and local governments and private landowners are putting their effort into staving off a decision to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Sage grouse and the ESA were both hot topics of conversation at the 2015 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Summer Conference, held in Denver, Colo. July 15-18.
“This decision involves 11 western states, and depending on the decision, it can affect people for more than a couple generations,” said John Swartout, senior policy advisor for Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
Since Greater sage grouse was determined to be warranted, but precluded for listing under the ESA, Swartout mentioned that a court decision mandated an ESA listing decision must be made by Sept. 15, 2015. A later addition in Congress' cromnibus package of December 2014 pushed the decision back to Sept. 30.
State and local efforts
For many years, Swartout noted that the 11 states involved have been working to protect the Greater sage grouse.
“Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met with the Western Governor’s Association (WGA) and said, ‘Let’s work together for sage grouse on federal land and update BLM plans across the states. Let’s individualize them,’” Swartout explained. “Governor Hickenlooper and Governor Matt Mead became co-chairs for the WGA’s effort to create state and federal plans for sage grouse.”
The efforts, he continued, range from statewide plans to more localized plans, but Swartout emphasized that the focus was to develop plans that address the unique threats and landscapes in each state.
“We are not all the same,” Swartout said. “The way to protect the grouse is different in each state, and quite frankly, the threats are different in each state.”
Swartout also noted, however, that it has been difficult to keep track of changing messages from the federal government.
“Federal land management plans were sent to Washington, D.C. last May, and we are now going through a roll-up,” he explained. “All the work we did to individualize the plans to be effective is now under the microscope and the federal government is looking at them for consistency. I call that a one-size-fits-all plan, which is exactly what we – and Ken Salazar – tried to avoid.”
In addition, since the release of the BLM’s plans in late May 2015, state governors have begun reviewing the plans for consistency with their state efforts.
Swartout mentioned that local efforts have shown that an individualized process and plan involving private landowners, states and local government cooperation is necessary in achieving true conservation of species.
“What we have learned in Colorado is that partnerships with landowners are really key if we want to keep people out of harm’s way from the impacts of the ESA,” Swartout said. “We don’t want to be under these draconian principles.”
On the ground
As state governments work from a policy standpoint, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has continued their effort in working with landowners. Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs) and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) are two top priority items they promote.
Currently, 30 CCAAs covering 376,055 acres and nine CCAs on 254,012 acres have been completed in Wyoming.
“Right now, we are trying to help CCAA participants, who we know also want to do CCAs on their federal grazing allotments, to get started with that process,” said Tyler Abbott, FWS deputy field supervisor. “We now have a good template produced for conservation plans that are needed for the CCAAs, and we are in the process of helping a number of CCAA participants develop those plans.”
Abbott mentioned, “I want people to understand that we can help them with an application directly or through one of our partners. If they want to sit down to talk to take it really slow, we are willing to do that. If they conclude after a couple of conversations with us or our partners, that they do not want to do a CCAA after all, that is okay.”
He explained that FWS is available to answer any and all questions about the process and to have conversations with producers about the agreements.
Working with landowners
Pauline Hope, FWS wildlife biologist, noted that it is not uncommon for people to discuss a CCAA, take the agreement home and then make a decision later.
For people who are unsure about a CCAA, Hope noted that she is open and willing to travel anywhere in the state to sit down, answer questions and discuss the process.
“We can walk through the application, and if they want to move forward, we can certainly do that. If they don’t want to, they can take it home and think about it,” Hope commented. “We aren’t here to pressure landowners into anything. I want to make sure people know everything there is to know to make an informed decision.”
After an application is submitted, Abbott noted that it isn’t set in stone, commenting, “It is easy to not process an application if someone decides it isn’t right for them and their operation, even after it is signed.”
As producers are exploring the CCAA and CCA process, Abbott mentioned that often they are unaware how flexible the agreements are.
There is also confusion among landowners between the CCAAs and CCA process and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), he said.
“We try to emphasize that these programs are compatible,” said Abbott. “Producers can participate in a CCAA and SGI, or just one or the other. If anyone has questions about how it works, we are always glad to answer their questions.”
He emphasized that each operation is unique and what works for one won’t necessarily work for others.
“Initially, I think people were cautious about signing up, but through word of mouth and our workshops, I see growing interest,” Hope commented.
In the next several months, Abbott mentioned that CCAAs and CCAs continue to be processed, but there is still time to sign up.
“Sept. 30 is the deadline by which we have to make a listing decision for the sage grouse,” he said, “but if the decision is to list the bird, we will still have 12 months to complete that Federal Register notification. That means we have 12 months to get people signed up – even if the decision is to list the bird. That said, the more people we can get signed up before that listing determination is made in September, the more effective the CCAAs and CCAs will be in helping to keep the bird off the list in the first place.”
In the event that a determination is made to list the bird, Abbott anticipates a huge push toward more applications.
“CCAAs are for any non-listed species of conservation concern,” he continued. “We can still continue to do CCAAs and CCAs, even if we make the determination not to list the bird because we know we are going to get challenged. We would like to continue to demonstrate that private landowners are doing things proactively on the ground – with or without the listing decisions – to help keep these species from becoming listed in the future.”
“This is long-term process, and we hope to continue to sign people up, well beyond the Sept. 30 listing decision deadline,” Abbott said.