Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she’s hopeful that her agency will decide the sage grouse does not warrant listing as an endangered species, a decision with major implications for Idaho and other Western states.
“I remain optimistic that a ‘not-warranted’ listing is possible,” Jewell told reporters Tuesday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by Sept. 30 whether the birds need the federal protections of an endangered species. It’s a huge issue in the inter-mountain West, where a sage grouse listing could restrict energy development, livestock grazing and residential construction.
Jewell, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, said she has “stayed completely arm’s length” from the decision. But she praised the work that’s been done to protect the sage grouse habitat and counter the bird’s population decline.
“The efforts on the part of states, the natural resources conservation service, private landowners, nonprofit organizations, energy companies, developers, transmission companies, grazers, ranchers and cattlemen has been incredible,” Jewell said.
The sage grouse issue is among the most contentious that Jewell faces. Congress, worried about restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other development, passed a bill last year that forbids federal officials from spending money on listing the sage grouse as threatened or endangered for now.
Idaho does not believe that the greater sage grouse needs federal protections.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter
But Western governors and other opponents of listing the species are worried about future federal action and anxious for the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare that the birds are not endangered.
Jewell’s remarks are a “welcome development” if they indicate the agency is heading away from listing the sage grouse as endangered, said Jon Hanian, spokesman for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.
“We’ve been kind of bracing ourselves that it’s going to go the other way,” Hanian said in an interview.
Otter said in an emailed statement that “Idaho does not believe that the greater sage grouse needs federal protections, and we’re hopeful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reaches that conclusion as well.”
“But in the meantime, I’m deeply concerned about the path on which the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and Fish and Wildlife are headed, which threatens to overly restrict access to nearly 3 million acres by focusing on secondary threats to the species,” Otter said.
Sage grouse habitat covers about 165 million acres in the West. That’s about half as much as before development broke up the iconic sagebrush landscape, a habitat loss that decimated the bird’s population. Sage grouse are also at dire risk from the devastating wildfires of the West.
Jewell, though, sounds optimistic.
She brought up a habitat protection effort that led to last week’s removal of the New England cottontail rabbit from the list of species under consideration for an endangered listing.
“I will remain optimistic and hopeful that we can have a similar outcome, but we are all waiting for the Fish and Wildlife Service to make their determination,” Jewell said.