Add one more potential victim to the catalog of high-profile species likely to be harmed by the Endangered Species Act.
The sage grouse, a large ground-dwelling bird that inhabits 165 million acres in 11 Western states, including Montana, appears headed for listing under the act, much to the detriment of both the grouse and those with the greatest stake in preserving it.
Over its 40-year history, the Endangered Species Act has often caused significant harm to the very species it is supposed to protect by unnecessarily creating adversaries of landowners harboring these species and pre-empting state conservation efforts.
The Endangered Species Act’s massive penalties – $100,000 and/or one year in jail for harming a bird, egg, or even habitat – turns species into economic liabilities. Understandably, landowners often respond by ridding their land of potentially regulated species and their habitats; but the tragedy is that most do so very reluctantly. They cherish their land and take pride in being good conservationists.
States, meanwhile, realize what is at stake. Listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act “would be the worst thing for it,” said Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “It would all but do away with any of the conservation that is in place.” States have taken the lead in conserving the grouse but are concerned their efforts will be snuffed out by Endangered Species Act mandates if listing occurs. “We can probably do a better job with our local programs and partnerships than Fish and Wildlife can trying to regulate from afar,” according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The 11 states Western where sage grouse rangelands are found are, in partnership with local governments and landowners, best positioned to conserve the species and habitat for three reasons.
First, as Hickenlooper acknowledges, states are more sensitive to ecological and social conditions than the federal government with its one-size-fits-all solutions. The difference is skin in the game. It’s easy for often well-meaning interests who know little of conditions on the ground to include species like the sage grouse in their larger preservation or environmental agendas without recognizing that environmental management and a vibrant rural production economy are not mutually exclusive, but rather symbiotic.
Second, all the states in the sage grouse’s range have robust, cutting-edge research and conservation initiatives, most of which have been operating for the better part of the past decade and are proving increasingly successful. These states’ wildlife agencies and university extension services devote significant resources to finding out why sage grouse numbers have been declining, how to reverse it, and what sage grouse conservation means to the natural-resource-based industries in their respective states. They’ve shown over and over that the sage grouse and these economies not only can co-exist, but that responsible practices can enhance sage grouse habitat and result in success for both the species and those who depend on the land for their livelihoods.
“Traditional family-owned ranching operations … have historically managed land in a manner that is compatible with sage-grouse conservation and are well-poised to collaborate with wildlife and range professionals to maintain and improve sage-grouse habitat,” according to a recent study co-authored by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Third, academic surveys conducted of landowners in regions with endangered species point away from the Endangered Species Act and toward the types of voluntary and cooperative approaches being implemented by states for the sage grouse. These surveys show that landowners are more likely to conserve endangered species if their property rights and autonomy are respected and if they are compensated for their efforts. Landowners are ready for true market-based solutions that help both the wildlife and the landowners’ operations thrive.
For the sake of the sage grouse and all imperiled species, Montanans should support a new approach to conserving endangered species that is based on rewarding – not punishing – landowners, and letting state experts take the lead. We need a new, more promising approach so that landowners and resource users will willingly conserve, monitor and actively contribute to the successful conservation of endangered species.
Carl Graham is director of the Sutherland Coalition for Self-Government in the West. Brian Seasholes is director of the Endangered Species Project at Reason Foundation.