Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by ICL Public Lands Director John Robison, and is the second installment of a two-part series. To read Part I, click here. For an enjoyable audio portrait of living in the sage-grouse country of central Washington, consider finding the podcast “Grouse” wherever you access your favorite podcasts. The 8-episode series was produced in 2021 by one of the journalists on the lek visit, Ashley Ahearn, in conjunction with Boise State Public Radio.

The greater sage-grouse has been considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) going all the way back to 1991. However, the “break glass in case of emergency” moment hasn’t yet happened. Despite continued deterioration of habitat with federally-established standards and declining sage-grouse numbers, the species is not yet protected by the ESA, as one might think. 

In 2010, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that a lack of “regulatory mechanisms” existed for the sage-grouse and that protections were warranted under the ESA, but failed to take further action, citing other priorities at the agency. At the same time, many were concerned that such protections would lead to significant uncertainty or have negative implications for rural economies. To address USFWS concerns and prevent a listing, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) updated its Resource Management Plans in 2015 in an effort to provide additional safeguards for sage-grouse and their habitat. The USFWS deemed that these plans were sufficient. Initially, the State of Idaho provided significant contributions to the draft plans, through a stakeholder task force, but ultimately litigated the final set of Resource Management Plans as being too restrictive (interestingly, the safeguards in the 2015 Plans were far less restrictive than a listing decision might be). Other groups litigated the plan as not being protective enough.

So, instead of an ESA recovery plan with legal teeth, managers currently rely on improved safeguards in BLM plans along with voluntary conservation efforts. The premise being that there is more incentive for industry, ranchers, state and federal agencies to work together to protect and restore sage-grouse habitat now than trying to recover sage-grouse numbers if the species is listed.

In theory, this sounds good. The problem is that accelerating losses of Sage-grouse populations seem to offer more than sufficient proof that these initiatives are still falling woefully short in many areas. While Idaho’s sage-grouse are faring well within core populations, populations on the margin continue to decline. The life raft is getting smaller. 

Adding to this stark conclusion is the fact that language in federal appropriation bills going back to 2014 prevents the USFWS from even considering listing the bird on the ESA. At the time, Congressman Mike Simpson justified these actions, claiming “by delaying the listing decision, we can provide the BLM with time to do the job right.” However, rangewide populations continue to decline. And because the real threat of a listing decision has been removed, there isn’t as much legitimate incentive for stakeholders to do what is right by the bird. This is why ICL supports efforts to remove the “sage-grouse rider.” 

As our recent sage-grouse lek tour concluded, what has been clear to many westerners for decades seemed to become apparent to the visiting journalists over the course of a single morning. At some point, tip-toeing around public lands management issues and political  postures are not enough; we need to make substantive changes in rangeland conservation and restoration if these amazing birds are to survive. 

The BLM is going to be revising the 2015 Sage-grouse Resource Management Plan Amendments to factor in new scientific studies, climate change, continued habitat losses, and further declines in sage-grouse populations. ICL will be asking the BLM to take the following measures to address the major threats to sage-grouse in Idaho (invasive annual grasses and wildfires): 1) Increase the resilience of rangelands to wildfires by reducing cheatgrass and other invasive species in sagebrush stands before the next wildfire. This can be done by improved rangeland management to rebuild the soil crusts that resist cheatgrass and better management of activities that spread cheatgrass. We can also increase the resilience of rangelands to wildfires by utilizing beaver dam analogs to raise the water table to restore wet meadow complexes, 2) Take stronger actions to prevent human-caused wildfires and support more firefighting resources like Rangeland Fire Protection Associations, and 3) Restore degraded and burned areas with the right species of sagebrush and forbs that sage-grouse need. 

The BLM is considering closing sagebrush focal areas to future mining claims. Even though existing mining claims would be honored, this is an important step in the right direction. We also need to work together to do more to avoid, minimize and mitigate other threats, from infrastructure projects to unmanaged recreation. We need to be acting as if sage-grouse are endangered, even if that legal determination isn’t presently available. The longer we wait, the harder it will be for both  sage-grouse and Idahoans who rely on this landscape. ICL will continue to encourage leaders to address their plight in ways that assure their robust presence on the landscape. Bold action grounded in courage and scientific rigor must now rule the day if we are to continue to witness the wild splendor of a sage-grouse courtship ritual. Crisp April mornings in the sagebrush seas of Idaho would simply never be the same without them.

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