On September 22, energy developers in the West breathed a sigh of relief when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that the greater sage-grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).[i] The FWS noted that in 2010 it believed that “habitat loss, fragmentation, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” could warrant ESA listing for the grouse.[ii] Yet five years later, focused public-private conservation partnerships have borne fruit, as FWS now says that “[b]ased on the best available scientific and commercial information, we have determined that the primary threats to greater sage-grouse have been ameliorated by conservation efforts implemented by Federal, State, and private landowners.”[iii]

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Source: USFWS

The greater sage-grouse’s range historically extends across 11 Western states, including prime areas for oil, gas, wind, solar, coal, and uranium development (Figure 1). Given that, billions of dollars of current and prospective investment potentially hinged on the FWS’s recent decision not to list the greater sage-grouse.

The energy industry was understandably nervous because, in November 2014, the FWS placed the Gunnison sage-grouse, a close relative of the greater sage-grouse, under ESA protection.[iv] That decision directly impacted 1.4 million acres of designated habitat in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah where Gunnison sage-grouse make their home.

Figure 1: Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat Map

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Source: USFWS

Meanwhile, the greater sage-grouse’s recovery authored a new conservation and joint stewardship success story. The past five years have seen a world-class boom in U.S. unconventional oil production, with a sizable share of that coming from the Intermountain West and basin and range country the sage-grouse inhabits. Indeed, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, which provide core sage-grouse habitat, have seen crude oil output double since the FWS began to consider listing the grouse in 2010 (Figure 2). These states now produce approximately one of every 12 barrels of crude oil pumped in the U.S. each day.

Figure 2: Crude Oil Production in Key Sage-Grouse States (CO, MT, UT, WY)

Thousand barrels per day, by month

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Source: EIA

The greater sage-grouse’s population recovery offers an example of how cooperative conservation efforts can help reverse a species’ population decline. Populations have recovered despite higher levels of oil and gas development. These populations also have recovered despite the fact that for much of the past three years (twice the average greater sage-grouse life span), an average of approximately 75 percent of the Western U.S. landmass has suffered from varying degrees of drought (Figure 3)[v]

Figure 3: Drought in AZ, CA, CO, ID, NM, NV, OR, MT, UT, WA, WY Percentage of combined land area suffering from abnormal dryness to exceptional drought

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Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

Energy developers and conservation groups now possess two successful cooperative conservation models as examples. The first is the dunes sagebrush lizard. Citing the “unprecedented commitments to voluntary conservation agreements” in Texas and New Mexico that provided for the long-term conservation of the dunes sagebrush lizard, the FWS withdrew its proposed endangered species listing for the lizard. Now, the greater sage-grouse offers another example of how to effectively balance the interests of conservationists, land users, and energy development in the West.

We believe three characteristics of these plans may have contributed to their success. First, the plans required voluntary restrictions on development and human activity in the impacted species’ known territory that would degrade its habitat or interfere with its chances for long-term survival. Second, the plans required mitigation of the loss of habitat by reducing activities that fragmented or segregated the habitat, and encouraged measures to reclaim previously impacted territory. Finally, the plans achieved longevity by including measures that allowed continuing modification of accepted practices in response to new information and changing circumstances.  As energy producers continue to flock to states with high development potential, the characteristics of these models may provide a road map for preserving both the habitat and the right to develop sites within it without the need for regulatory action.