Marschner: Many good reasons to save the sage grouse

This op-ed by Janet Marschner, Wyoming Wildlife Federation president, was published in the April 9 edition of the Casper Star-Tribune

Before I moved to Wyoming and during my visits to the Cowboy State, most of my time was spent in the mountains. I was like a lot of other people who, not having grown up around sagebrush country, don’t always immediately appreciate the beauty and diversity of the iconic Western landscape.

However, familiarity has bred my respect and awe for the sagebrush steppe. Much of my time is spent outdoors hunting, fishing, cross-country skiing and kayaking. And a great deal of the time I am in sagebrush country, where I continually marvel at what an amazing ecosystem it is and how many species it supports – more than 350.

A sagebrush species in the spotlight right now is the greater sage-grouse because its numbers across the West have been declining for a while. Once in the millions, the bird’s current total population is estimated at only 200,000 to 500,000.

Saving sage grouse for its own sake is a worthy goal, but there’s an even better reason to care about the spiky-tailed bird with the elaborate mating dance – it’s a bellwether species for the entire sagebrush ecosystem.

Last fall’s announcement of state and federal conservation plans to save the bird and its habitat was a crucial milestone for greater sage-grouse and a key Western landscape. The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it did not have to add the sage grouse to the Endangered Species List was based on conservation work already under way and protections included in the plans. The historic, wide-scale state/federal conservation plans were crafted with input from local and state interests and are supported by parties across the spectrum.

Now, the conservation work must be allowed to proceed. The time for legal and political wrangling is over.

The long-term survival of the greater sage grouse is at stake, along with the viability of the “sagebrush sea” itself. Mule deer, whose populations across the West are declining are dependent on the sagebrush steppe. Elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, golden eagles and migrating songbirds eat and shelter among the sagebrush. Our outdoor heritage and local economies that benefit from the more than $1 billion generated annually from activities on sagebrush lands are at stake.

Unfortunately, people who think the plans are too restrictive and people who don’t think they’re tough enough are suing to block the conservation efforts. Some members of Congress are determined to stymie implementation of the plans by challenging the authority of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to manage sage grouse on public lands.

But here in the heart of sagebrush country, we’re ready and willing to give the conservation plans and efforts by private landowners and local and state governments the opportunity to turn things around for the greater sage grouse. I recently joined other Westerners to make that case in “Voices of the Sage,” a report by the National Wildlife Federation.

The time to act is now. We expect, and should demand, that the conditions on the ground be monitored to determine if strategies mapped out are working. But first we have to give the plans a chance to work. I’m proud of Gov. Matt Mead’s leadership to institute conservation programs in Wyoming, intervene on behalf of BLM’s management plans, and show that collaboration and coordination can provide a better future for sage grouse.

If we allow attempts in Congress to derail years of work to protect sage-grouse, or give up on plans before they’re put in action, we’ll risk losing a species and a treasured Western landscape.

Wildlife advocate Janet Marschner lives in Cheyenne and is an avid hunter and fly fisherwoman.