On September 22, 2015, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The Department of the Interior is calling the greater sage-grouse strategy “the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history” and “a 21st-century approach to conservation.”  In reaching its “not warranted” finding, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) relied upon the collective conservation efforts of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), State agencies, industry, and private landowners.  The final listing determination follows the Service’s 2010 finding that listing of the greater sage-grouse was warranted but precluded by other ESA priorities, as well as the Service’s 2011 settlements with environmental groups in which the agency agreed to publish a final listing decision by September 30, 2015.

This charismatic umbrella species has been a source of controversy throughout its 173 million acre range, which includes sagebrush habitat in 11 Western states where ranching and natural resource production are widespread.  Following the Service’s 2010 “warranted but precluded” finding, Federal and State agencies, private landowners, industry, and environmental groups pursued a range-wide conservation strategy to benefit the species and to diminish the need for ESA listing.  The Service’s ultimate decision that listing is no longer warranted was largely based upon these conservation efforts, which include BLM and USFS land management plans, Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) voluntarily entered into by private landowners, and State plans to conserve the species.  Concurrent with the listing decision, BLM and USFS announced their finalization of 98 land-use plans intended to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat, avoid disturbance of habitat areas considered essential to the species, and support sustainable economic development on various public lands across 10 states.  Ultimately, the Service determined that the primary threats to greater sage-grouse—which were identified in 2010 as habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms—have been “ameliorated” by conservation efforts implemented by Federal, State, and private landowners.

In her speech announcing the listing decision, Secretary Jewell called the Federal, State, and local actions an “epic conservation effort” and an example of how the ESA “is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation.”  The relatively recent trend of stakeholders developing concerted voluntary pre-listing conservation strategies for proposed or candidate species has had mixed success in heading off species listings, such as: (1) the dunes sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus), which received a “not warranted” determination in 2012; (2) the Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus), which was listed as threatened in 2014; and (3) the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), whose 2014 threatened listing has recently been vacated by a Federal district court based upon the Service’s flawed evaluation of voluntary conservation efforts.  Due to its geographic, economic, and political significance, the listing decision for the greater sage-grouse and the associated Federal land-use plans are likely to be challenged legislatively as well as in the courts, where litigation has already been filed to protect mining interests.

The Service’s listing determination for the greater sage-grouse has not yet been published in the Federal Register; a 2014 appropriations bill rider prohibited Service expenditures for listing of the greater sage-grouse, and this rider expires on the same September 30, 2015 deadline by which the Service must make the court-ordered listing determination.  Though the Service has concluded that the greater sage-grouse does not currently warrant listing under the ESA, the Service plans to conduct a status review in five years to assess the success of the conservation measures in place and inform adaptive management of the species.