The greater sage-grouse was deemed to be "warranted but precluded" by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Though it "warrants" protection under the Endangered Species Act, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said, the greater sage-grouse will not be added to the list at this time. Instead, it would join nearly 300 other species that have been "precluded"—essentially placed on a waiting list—while other priority species are considered.
While the ruling was by no means a total loss for the grouse, it falls far short of what many conservationists believe is necessary to save the species—and highlights the tangles of bureaucracy that must be navigated to attain federal protection.
Preclusion Does Not Prevent Protection
Failing to attain endangered species status, fortunately, does not mean that the grouse will go without protections. Once a species has been labeled "warranted but precluded," it enters a 12-month review cycle that continues until its status is upgraded to inclusion on the endangered species list, or is ruled to no longer be "warranted."
This means that the greater sage grouse, along with the 270 other precluded species, will continue to be monitored by the Department of the Interior and the Fish & Wildlife Service. Though conservation strategies are decided by each state, they have the opportunity to work with federal agencies.
The sage grouse's decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century...this development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species' survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources. Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort.
Working directly with private landowners, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland explained, is one of the key strategies the department plans to utilize while the sage-grouse is precluded.
This case—indeed the entire list of warranted but precluded species—illustrates the dangers of reactive conservation methods. Though it has lost 50 percent of its rangeland and suffered a 90 percent reduction in its population since the 19th century, the greater sage-grouse maintains numbers and a distribution large enough that it is not, according to officials, in immediate threat of extinction.
Without action, however, conservationists predict the extirpation of many local populations within 50 or 100 years, which would leave the remaining population so fragmented that it would be vulnerable to complete extinction. If numbers were allowed to drop this low, the species would certainly qualify for inclusion on the endangered species list but it would likely be too late to save the grouse.
At its best, "warranted but precluded" status allows federal agencies to work with state and private interests to implement a preventative conservation plan. This could, indeed, prove more beneficial than the statutory protections that come with an endangered species listing and the woefully diminished population that status implies.
A lack of statutory protection, however, leaves room for a lot of uncertainty. In the case of the greater sage-grouse, many parties—including oil and gas developers, solar and wind power companies, cattle ranchers, and mining companies—have an interest in the area that would be defined as a "critical habitat" under and endangered species listing.
The only way sage-grouse will survive is if large areas of the sagebrush sea are left undeveloped, and chronic disturbances like livestock grazing are removed from those areas...this sad delay will make it much more difficult to effectively conserve this magnificent bird.
For at least one more year, however, it will be the responsibility of private land owners and cash-strapped states to balance these interests—and seek support from the federal government where applicaple—to guard against the many threats closing in on the greater sage-grouse.
Read more about endangered species:
Obama Protecting Fewer Endangered Species than Bush
AP Reports Proposal to Drastically Alter Endangered Species Act
Endangered Species List is Itself Endangered
7 Weird Endangered Species Only a Mother Could Love