A wild greater sage-grouse stands on display on a dirt road adjacent to Colorado’s Arapahoe National Wildlife Refuge with an oil storage tank and pump jack in the background. | © milehightraveler/istock/Getty Images Plus
The greater sage-grouse—a stout bird with a spiky tail that resides in the sagebrush steppe of the western states—is back in the news, delving into the long-running debate about tradeoffs between economic development and species preservation.
Plans announced earlier this month by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would relax restrictions on oil and gas activity across seven states, including exemptions that can allow for drilling in areas with sensitive sage-grouse habitats. The level to which the plans open new areas to oil and gas varies across the states, with some (e.g., Wyoming) greatly relaxing explicit restrictions, while others (e.g., Oregon) effecting no change at all. These changes are amendments to BLM land use plans that were put in place in 2015 to help protect the greater sage-grouse and to prevent the need to list the species under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). The amendments, in part, aim to better align the federal plans with those developed by the states as part of the decade-long unprecedented collaborative effort that precluded the impending need to list the sage-grouse in 2015. Some states found the federal plans too restrictive.
The proposed BLM land use changes will open up opportunities for short term economic gains for the oil and gas industry by enabling development in areas that were restricted under the original land use amendments, thereby helping to fulfill a key goal of the Trump administration. The changes also could mean irreversible losses to key sage-grouse habitat relative to the anticipated repercussions under the original collaborative plans to protect the bird, and in turn could impact many of the other 350 species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem for their survival. However, predicting the ultimate economic and ecological consequences that these changes might induce is a difficult task for a number of reasons.
First, even if development proceeds in the sensitive sage-grouse habitats opened up by these changes, a number of safeguards will nonetheless remain in place that could help to minimize impacts. The plans continue to provide many conservation measures that are to be implemented to benefit sage-grouse. In addition, actions on federal lands are still required to undergo evaluation under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which aims to identify and disclose project impacts and encourages avoidance and minimization of those impacts. Also, some states (even some of the states affected by the planned BLM amendments) still have plans in place that aim to provide a net conservation benefit to the bird, which, if fulfilled, could help mitigate impacts from these habitat protection roll-backs. (However, achieving the net conservation gains may be harder, and not all states have included such provisions.) Also, some companies may still choose to apply voluntary safeguards to protect the bird, either to reduce the likelihood of future listing or perhaps to be good stewards or contribute to a positive environmental reputation.
The second reason it is difficult to predict the impact of these land use amendments pertains to something that we noted in an earlier blog post. Specifically, the level of conservation needed to avoid the listing of the sage-grouse (i.e., to protect it from potential endangerment in the near term) was uncertain prior to the 2015 listing decision. The decision not to list the sage-grouse showed stakeholders that the promised level of conservation met or exceeded the bar. While exactly what level of conservation would be “sufficient” to protect sage-grouse is ultimately unknown, even to sage-grouse experts, some stakeholders may now speculate that more conservation measures were implemented than are actually needed to conserve the species. If the prior conservation efforts did indeed overshoot the uncertain conservation bar, the proposed BLM land use changes could represent a recalibration of conservation efforts that could still meet the needs of the species while reducing the regulatory burdens. For example, with technological improvements that continue to occur, site impacts can increasingly be reduced, such as through greater co-location of wells on the same pad. Thus, if the remaining protections in place for the bird across its range are sufficient, it is possible that the roll-backs would not spell extinction risk for the bird.
However, if insufficient safeguards are maintained as development proceeds or if the latest amendments have gone too far in the roll-backs of protection, the sage-grouse could ultimately be listed under the ESA to protect it from falling further toward extinction. Given the sensitivity of sage-grouse to habitat loss, fragmentation, and disturbance, reversing negative impacts that could arise under various development scenarios may be extremely difficult and costly. Also, the ability to effectively offset impacts to sage-grouse habitat from development has been hindered by the compensatory mitigation policy changes the Trump administration implemented earlier this year which prohibit the BLM from requiring compensatory mitigation unless it is mandated by state or other federal policies.
Recognizing the complexity of this challenge, a new listing petition for the sage-grouse could come quicker than we think, even before any new drilling activities get underway, if experts believe the changes will endanger the sage-grouse. The criteria for listing a species as “threatened” or “endangered” extend beyond the direct impacts to the species. “Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” is among the potential listing triggers. The proposed changes to the land-use policies that were developed to protect the bird could check this box. If petitioned, the Fish and Wildlife Service would restart the process of evaluating the need to list.
Beyond the immediate ecological and economic uncertainties posed by the latest land use plan amendments, it also is not clear how substantially the listing of the sage-grouse would affect longer term economic returns to oil and gas. While overall costs to industry would almost certainly be higher if the sage-grouse were listed under the ESA, the gap between costs with and without listing was substantially reduced by the restrictions that were agreed to in the original conservation effort, as discussed in an earlier blog post. The latest changes may increase that gap between costs by reducing current restrictions in areas affected by the plan updates. In addition, to the extent that the latest changes increase the likelihood of the sage-grouse being listed, the changes may ultimately shift costs among stakeholders by increasing short term gains to some (e.g., oil and gas), while potentially increasing the likelihood of regulatory costs to stakeholders rangewide.
Much of the rhetoric responding to each new twist in the ongoing sage-grouse saga is polarized and extreme. However, there is much nuance and uncertainty, and a lot depends on how development and protections are ultimately rolled out. I’d like to think, though, that all sides hope that implementation proceeds in a way that continues to protect this remarkable bird, the intricate ecosystem on which it depends, and the many other species and benefits that the system provides, while also working to support our rural communities.
Hopefully, the “success” of the unprecedented collaborative conservation effort, which gathered many diverse stakeholders to proactively protect the sage-grouse, remains itself protected as conservation activities and development proceed. The sage-grouse’s precarious decline and anticipated ESA listing was halted by massive collaborative and voluntary efforts by diverse stakeholders (including the federal government, 11 western states, and numerous private property owners) put in place over the course of more than a decade. If these hard won protections are rolled back to the point that their initial conservation success is reversed, the results may dampen future collaborative efforts by reducing stakeholders’ expectations that proactive conservation can be successful and persistent. And yet, these types of efforts, which prevent species from reaching irreversibly dire straits, are ever more important in this changing world.
Partnerships and cooperation like those for sage-grouse bring a critical cross-cutting approach to conservation efforts, bridging gaps between public and private landowners and across state lines, and helping to overcome the challenges to provisioning public goods. The future promise of these types of collaborations is bolstered by success stories that can be highlighted for their positive social and environmental outcomes. Hopefully, as implementation of sage-grouse conservation efforts continue, even with its ongoing uncertainty, it can end up as a success story for the bird and people that can encourage future proactive conservation to help protect our Nation’s natural heritage and communities.