In the first salvo of a larger environmental-industry showdown impacting Western shale development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday (Nov. 12, 2014) that the Gunnison sage-grouse would be granted endangered-species protection as a “threatened” class. The decision had been delayed for six months while state and local officials in Colorado and Utah undertook extensive conservation measures to avoid the listing.

Both states’ economies benefit from oil and natural gas exploration and production and renewable energy development, and the listing will impact current and future energy-related development efforts. Prior to the decision, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper promised a lawsuit against the federal government if the agency listed the Gunnison sage-grouse as either “threatened” or “endangered.” After the announcement, Governor Hickenlooper renewed his threat.

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(April 2014 photo from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife)

In his press conference, Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, explained, “While many people hoped that the extraordinary conservation efforts by our partners in Colorado and Utah would resolve all the threats faced by the Gunnison sage-grouse, the best available science indicates that the species still requires the Act’s protection.”

On its face, the decision will directly impact 1.4 million acres of designated habitat in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah where Gunnison sage-grouse make their home. This protection will require a restriction of oil and gas and renewable energy development, including the closures of roads during nesting season, and cessation of the operation of machinery. FWS officials stated that they will closely examine any activity that could threaten the grouse population, and noted that exploration companies will need to consolidate drilling on fewer sites, using directional drilling to minimize surface disturbance and disruption to the habitat. The implications for the wind industry could be even more significant in the area designated by FWS, particularly given the permanent nature of these structures and spacing offsets that will likely be imposed to mitigate impacts on the Gunnison sage-grouse.

However, the real impact lies in the future treatment of the greater sage-grouse, a related species, whose historic range extends across 11 Western states. Aware of this similarity, Director Ashe cautioned against viewing Wednesday’s decision as a predictor of the agency’s future action. Court orders require the agency to issue its ruling on the greater sage-grouse by September 2015.

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(Map posted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website)

The fact that the greater sage-grouse’s territory is also prime real estate for oil, gas, wind, solar, coal, and uranium development makes the bird the “big kahuna” for conservationists. To that end, the states and industry still have almost a year to adopt the model formed in Texas and New Mexico to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard. There, conservation agreements between oil and gas operators, renewable energy developers, landowners, and state agencies provided enough protection to the lizard to prevent the federal government from classifying it as an endangered species. In the case of the greater sage-grouse, such conservation agreements could mean voluntary restrictions on development locations and payments into habitat restoration funds.

With billions of dollars per year in economic development at issue, the stakes out on the range are rising, while the fate of the sage-grouse and the energy industry hangs in the balance.