Sep 212015

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, joined by four Western governors, the directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey, and the chiefs of the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, "will make a major announcement related to the historic conservation effort for the greater sage-grouse" in Colorado tomorrow.

News organizations have widely reported that Jewell and the assembled agency heads (along with a rancher from Nevada and an executive with Audubon Rockies) will be announcing the long-awaited decision on whether listing of the greater sage-grouse is "warranted" under the Endangered Species Act.

Given the hoopla surrounding the event, the attendance by the governors of Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado and Montana, and the wording of the Interior Department's media advisory, it appears unlikely that the outcome can be anything other than "not warranted."

Of course, that is speculation, but it's informed speculation. Hardly a week has gone by in the last few months without a news release about a new commitment of money and or/land to conserve the iconic sagebrush species, along with a mention of the "unprecedented" landscape-scale effort undertaken by the feds, states and ranchers.

The advisory followed the same script.

"[T]he long-term decline of the greater sage-grouse and its sagebrush habitat has sparked an unprecedented collaborative, science-based conservation effort across 11 western states." It hardly seems possible that the dignitaries are showingup to hear about a proposed listing of the bird.

Indeed, last week Jewell told media attending a briefing sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that she was "optimistic that a not warranted [decision] is possible," according to an article in the Washington Examiner with the wishful headline, "Interior chief sees no endangered species listing for sage grouse."

""What has happened in this collaborative work is really the way I think the Endangered Species Act should work," she said.

One example of that collaboration is the Colorado Habitat Exchange, announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper last week.

"The Colorado Habitat Exchange works to engage ranchers in voluntary conservation efforts by offering financial incentives to create, maintain and improve habitat on their property," the governor's office said in a news release. "Landowners earn conservation credits for these activities, which they can sell to industry to compensate for development, such as roads, oil and gas facilities and other infrastructure that impact species and habitat."

The state has asked FWS and BLM to "recognize" the exchange. “No one wants to see this bird on the Endangered Species List, and this program is our best chance of keeping the bird off the list, now and in the future,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

But Erik Molvar, Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, warned that although voluntary conservation is "laudable," conservation banking cannot be used "as an alternative to having real sage grouse protections."

So far, banking's track record is not enviable, he said, pointing to efforts for the lesser prairie-chicken as an example.

Molvar also said he doesn't know what the final decision will be. The government, he said is keeping the announcement "close to the vest."

"There is a growing sense, though no certainty, that the bird will not be listed — at least for now," a story in today's Los Angeles Times said.

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