Bird Conservation photo

Photograph courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the greater sage grouse should not be listed as endangered – yet. Sportsmen’s groups rejoiced, along with mainstream environmental organizations, industry, private landowners, state and federal agencies, and professional wildlife biologists. But some Western politicians groused (sorry, couldn’t resist) and quickly denounced the ruling.

So, why the fury?

Because the really important story line here isn’t about this single bird species. It’s about the Endangered Species Act, one of the most important tools left for fighting the growing threat to sell off and misuse our property – public lands, water, air, fish and wildlife.

First, a quick review.

In recent decades, greater sage grouse populations have plummeted as the “sage brush sea” that stretches across the Western states has been fragmented and destroyed by the rapid expansion of oil, gas, wind energy, and mining.

An ESA listing was fast approaching, and everyone involved knew what that could mean: Less access for grazing, oil and gas extraction, wind energy farms, hunting, and fishing.

To prevent that calamity, something unheard-of happened: The interest groups involved lowered the fences that traditionally separated them, and began working on a plan to keep the ESA out of their lives. The Sage Grouse Initiative brought together federal and state agencies, ranchers, industry, sportsmen conservation groups and mainstream green groups. They came up with a wide menu of changes in land use practices that has shown the potential to stop the decline and stabilize the species. Those practices will also help scores of other species dependent on the same habitat. And the coalition has promised to follow those practices.

The essential lesson in this story: This would not have happened without the hammer of the Endangered Species Act hanging over the participants.

The real value of the ESA isn’t its legal authority to move in after a species has been pushed to the edge of extinction, but rather its ability to prevent that sorry situation from happening in the first place. Think of it in terms of national defense policy: Having the ability to annihilate an opponent keeps bad actors from becoming a problem.

For the well-funded groups pushing to sell off public lands, this was a disappointment. They would have liked nothing better than an ESA crackdown on private lands. It would have provided more ammunition to throw at the big, bad, intrusive federal government they say is always trying to tell them how to live their lives. They never mention they are trying to live their lives with our public resources.

That’s why they were pushing a bill in Congress to short-circuit this unique, citizen-based private/public/industry conservation initiative.

And that’s why this battle isn’t over. Sportsmen and their partners in this effort can’t forget the two biggest reasons for their success so far:

• They listened to each other and worked together.
• The Endangered Species Act.

We need to preserve both.