A sage grouse in Wyoming

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) and Sage Grouse

The ‘Recovering America’s Wildlife Act’ could have huge impacts on securing the future of Sage Grouse Habitat in America.

It’s no secret that sage grouse populations have been declining for decades. Between climate change fueling hotter, longer wildfires and the expansion of the extractive industry into the bird’s ranges, agricultural development and the invasion of conifer woodlands and annual grasses, habitat loss has accelerated.

A Historic Loss of Sage Grouse Populations

At one time, the sagebrush ecosystem was spread over 450,000 square miles in the United States but has since declined by more than half. According to a September 2019 article published by the Audubon Society, the Idaho sage grouse population declined 52 percent from 2016, which included a 25 percent plunge in 2019 alone. From 2018 to the article’s publishing, Oregon had lost 25 percent of its birds. Further, Nevada had lost one-third of its population since 2016.

While these three states host important historical ranges for sage grouse, Wyoming has the largest current population and is arguably the species’ stronghold. Still, in 2018-19 the state lost 21 percent of its population. In three years, 44 percent was lost. But there are two bills in Congress right now – the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) and the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) – that could help boost conservation efforts in Wyoming and across the West.

“The money in RAWA is designed to implement the State Wildlife Action Plans, and so with that, any species identified within the SWAP will be eligible,” said Wyoming Department of Game and Fish Statewide Non-game Bird and Mammal Program Supervisor Zack Walker. “They’ve also added in additional wording to help with education, habitat restoration and different things like that. It would open up a huge funding source. At least with the House bill, it got changed slightly to where it’s a five-year allocation but it would remove the match requirement which [is] huge for many of the Western states with the current fiscal climate. It can be a game-changer for a lot of these efforts, sage grouse included.”

Although things seem bleak, these bills are a glimpse of hope. But more on that soon. First it’s worth looking at the recent history of battles over protecting sage grouse.

Wins for the Sage Grouse Fight

During this roller coaster of a term, the first win for sage grouse came in January 2018. On the heels of the Bureau of Land Management accelerating oil and gas leasing on public lands, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush voided multiple leases noting that the BLM failed to allow mandatory public participation. Then U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill ordered an injunction that restored plans created by a 2015 Western states collaborative, effectively protecting 51 million acres of sage grouse habitat.

This year has seen an extended series of wins for the species and conservation in general. First, in March, the U.S. Senate introduced GAOA. With the blessing of President Trump and heavy bipartisan support, the Senate easily secured enough votes to invoke cloture and then pass the bill, sending it to the House of Representatives on June 17. Should it pass as is, the bill will provide $9.5 billion over five years for federal agencies to begin working on deferred maintenance backlogs while also fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually.

Moving back to April, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris put a hold on Nationwide Permit 12, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water-crossing authorization, for failing to identify the impacts the project would have on endangered species. This halted most pipeline projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline. The Supreme Court would later reverse Morris’ ruling, allowing the ACOE to continue with its permit for the construction of new pipelines, but didn’t include KXL in its ruling. This was big for sage grouse, as the pipeline is set to run through prime habitat along its route.

READ: Impacts of Pipeline Projects on Upland Game Birds

Most recently, the House of Representatives passed RAWA, 233-188. The bill, introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), will provide $1.4 billion annually for five years to states, territories and tribes “to catalyze proactive, on-the-ground, collaborative efforts to restore essential habitat and implement key conservation strategies, as described in each state’s Wildlife Action Plan,” according to the National Wildlife Federation. Further, the NWF report cites a 2018 report “Reversing America’s Wildlife Crisis: Securing the Future of Our Fish and Wildlife,” which noted that one-third of wildlife in the United States is at risk of extinction. To help species already listed under the ESA, 10 percent of the resources would be used to recover them.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for states to use this in a variety of ways, but sage grouse, we’ve seen a level of interest in engagement through the Endangered Species Act listing process and the threat of that listing starting back in the early part of the decade,” said Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation Senior Director of Western States, Andy Treharne. CSF has been integral in getting RAWA and GAOA through Congress, even with the different levels of lawmaker interest in each piece of legislation.

“I think a lot of that interest was generated from the fact that there was pretty broad recognition that spanned political ideology, business interests and conservation interests that some of the consequences if the greater sage-grouse was listed under ESA, would be pretty significant to the economy and potentially some outdoor activities. A lot of different sectors had an interest in that. From 2010-2014, private entities and the state of Wyoming spent $100 million to keep the bird off the list. So there’s a lot of interest that a species doesn’t get to that point when it could impact the economy.”

This influx of funds to state and federal projects will certainly help alleviate any pressure agencies are under, including the Wyoming GFD. Because of this, Treharne knows the state wildlife agencies will utilize the funds as needed.

“There are 1,200 species of greatest conservation need that are identified in [all] the state wildlife action plans, and from our perspective, the state fish and wildlife agencies are best positioned to figure out how to address the needs of those species. This [RAWA] would provide more resources to do it,” he said.

“It’s one of those things that when you look at all the species, sage grouse included, there’s more work that needs to be done out there than we’ve had funding to accomplish,” Walker said. “So, shortfalls, I don’t necessarily say [that]. We’ve done the best with the money we’ve been allocated, but again with more funds come more possibilities. There likely would have been things we’d had like to have done in the past but didn’t have the funds to do because they didn’t rise to the priority, but if we had significantly more funding it would allow more of those projects to occur.”

As Treharne noted, sage grouse were once listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While it was a “warranted but precluded” status – which effectively did nothing for the bird from the federal level and put other species ahead of them – in 2015 the decision was made to delist the bird entirely. This move by the USFWS was a stark contrast to the Western states’ collaboration to enact advanced conservation projects in sagebrush country. This is best characterized by Ben Deeble’s story ‘The Last Sage Grouse’ in the Spring 2020 issue of Project Upland Magazine. In this story, Deeble notes the BLM’s flip from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration.

“BLM prohibited disturbance of more than 5 percent of the surface area of highest priority sage grouse habitat with activities like mining and energy development. But then conservation efforts hit a brick wall when a new administration came to power in 2017, promising industry jobs and fewer regulations. The BLM’s 5 percent surface disturbance limit was scrapped in 2018. The periodic population status review for sage grouse, information that would tell us if new conservation actions were being effective, was also postponed indefinitely. The machinery of wind farms, conventional oil and gas drilling, and their young cousin, fracking, has been allowed to grind ahead atop priority habitats except where court injunctions have thrown sand in the gears. There has even been legislation drafted to officially exempt sage grouse from the Endangered Species Act, essentially approving their extinction years before the last bird disappears. Unofficial estimates of sage grouse trends across nine states indicate on average a 44 percent decline since 2015,” he wrote.

The Wyoming Stronghold for Sage Grouse

Look at any map and you’ll notice that Wyoming is the stronghold for sage grouse. Why? Because they’ve taken proactive steps to ensure the survival of their birds.

“A lot of it has been the proactive management of the species, and that would be in the form of the governor’s executive order, Walker said. “In my opinion, one of the reasons we’ve been able to be a stronghold is that reliance on proactively addressing this problem and coming up with solutions to mitigate some of the development. [Plus] the research and the funding we’ve been able to put into sage grouse. Being a fairly rural state and with the proactive conservation measures, that’s probably, in my opinion, why we’ve been able to be a stronghold.”

Walker mentions two major points: Gov. Mark Gordon’s 2019 executive order and the amount of public land available in Wyoming. Gordon’s order has many directives, noting that the order stems from the U.S. Department of the Interior determining that sage-grouse are not warranted to be listed as threatened or endangered. In his order, he states, “The listing of the Greater sage-grouse would have a significant, adverse effect on the custom and culture of the State of Wyoming, and would substantially obstruct and conflict with ongoing and effective collaborative efforts to conserve Greater sage-grouse, and . . . the State of Wyoming recognizes the necessity of a robust and scientifically rigorous system of monitoring and has developed and implemented a Greater sage-grouse Core Area Protection strategy, including mechanisms to evaluate emerging science, data and information resulting in updated management recommendations from the Sage Grouse Implementation Team.”

The order goes on to list 20 points, and of those, it says that state agencies and departments will prioritize the maintenance and enhancement of the species’ habitats and populations in core areas, manage non-core areas in a manner consistent with the executive order and that the state will honor valid existing rights of land uses by industries. It further states that new land uses may be approved on a case-to-case basis and that any development must follow strict guidelines as to not endanger sage grouse. Of note, Wyoming is comprised of 54 percent public lands, 48 percent of which is owned by the federal government, so there’s a large swath of habitat that could have been negatively affected had Gordon not signed this executive order.

Will the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act Pass?

It’s likely sage grouse and sagebrush country will find the extra help it needs should these two bills pass with no new amendments tacked onto them. However, while the GAOA is likely to pass the House of Representatives with overwhelming support, the RAWA and its vehicle – H.R. 2 or the Moving Forward Act, a large-scale infrastructure bill – doesn’t have as much momentum going into the Senate.

“There was a sense that the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act fits in well with an effort to create jobs,” Treharne said. “This is advocating for enhanced wildlife and conservation infrastructure, and so it’s a good fit with any effort to address those needs on a broader scale.

“There are complicated politics [here]. Traditionally, highway bills and surface transportation authorizations or reauthorizations are developed along the same lines of the farm bill where they’re not Republican or Democrat large-spending bills. They’re typically bipartisan in nature, but the way the Moving Forward Act was drafted and put forward and then attached to some of these other infrastructure priorities, it’s still unclear what the appetite for that is going to be in the Senate. If you look at the vote count on H.R. 2, it reflects that, but we certainly recognize that there are some quality provisions for conservation and wildlife in that and we’ll keep working to ensure those make it into whatever Congress ends up doing.”

Should RAWA not survive, there’s still hope that state governments will follow Wyoming’s lead. But when asked if RAWA passes and where he sees Wyoming’s sage grouse population in five years, Walker didn’t want to guess offhand.

“I can’t say exactly where the populations would go, but being able to spend more time and effort, examine different management techniques and restoring habitat, at least we can make it more conducive for there to be more out there and better understand management to help conserve them,” he said “If we’re talking about translocations or anything else, the more knowledge we have and being able to fund that research will help us better understand what we can do to proactively conserve and hopefully increase those numbers.”

Last modified: July 21, 2020

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