Enacted unanimously by Congress in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been heralded as the strongest environmental law passed by any nation. For over 40 years, the law has successfully protected 99 percent of the U.S. species labeled as endangered from extinction; as of January 2013, ESA has protected over 1,400 endangered or threatened species in the United States. However, U.S. agencies are increasingly recognizing that listing species under the Endangered Species Act should be a last resort. Collaboration with private landowners and businesses can protect ecosystems while avoiding the need to list species as endangered, thereby avoiding potentially costly and time-consuming legal battles.

Federal conservation efforts are heading in a new direction, with a shift towards focusing on ecosystems over individual species, and incentives over mandates. By addressing threatened ecosystems, it is hoped a more systemic approach to protecting species and landscapes can be achieved. According to Frank Davis of the University of California, Santa Barbara, “[the Endangered Species Act] is not about setting aside places for wild species anymore. It’s about figuring ways to coexist with them in a highly uncertain future.”

Nothing has symbolized this new mindset more than the debate on whether or not to list the greater sage-grouse as endangered. The greater sage-grouse roams across 11 western states but its numbers dwindled by more than half between 2007 and 2013. Its territory covers a patchwork of federal, state and private lands, making a multi-pronged conservation approach key.

In 2010, when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) found that the greater sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Services (USFS) decided not to list the species immediately. Instead, the agencies developed a conservation strategy and agreed to wait until 2015 to decide whether the species should be listed as endangered. This gave states, federal agencies, and private landowners a five-year window to work together to protect the species and reduce human impacts on its habitat.

This unprecedented, collaborative approach spurred a series of science-based, ecosystem-level conservation efforts. Because of this work, the U.S. Department of Interior announced this fall that it would not list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Indeed, greater sage-grouse populations have made encouraging progress. From a low point in 2013, the number of males counted on leks, or traditional mating areas, has increased by 63 percent. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell described this public-private collaboration as “the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the United States, and perhaps the world.”

The process that led to the sage-grouse decision was unique in that it:

  • Changed the dialogue around the Endangered Species Act by bringing energy companies, ranchers, farmers, state officials, and conservationists together to invest in the recovery of a species without the need for listing;
  • Acknowledged that private landowners are critical players in decision-making;
  • Strategically targeted and invested in an ecosystem approach that will protect 350 other species that share the same habitat as the greater sage-grouse;
  • Engaged multiple agencies since one entity alone does not have all the resources to undertake this task; and
  • Fostered trust and credibility, as well as provided a measure of predictability and returns for landowners.

Conservationists and industry groups alike have voiced support for this new, collaborative approach to species and ecosystem protection. Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, commented that, "This decision illustrates what the Endangered Species Act is supposed to be all about: galvanizing collaborative efforts to save wildlife species before they’re on the brink of extinction." From the private-sector perspective, Paul Ulrich, the regulatory director at Jonah Energy, an oil and gas company, stated, “We’ve already seen a shift by industry as our knowledge about the greater sage-grouse has improved.” Some energy companies in the area have taken voluntary measures to operate only in daylight hours and suppress the growth of cheatgrass, an invasive species that has overtaken the greater sage-grouse's habitat.

The United States may have reached a turning point in its conservation efforts, where preventive measures are preferred over punitive ones. Significantly, it appears that federal agencies, landowners, and businesses could create long-lasting, collaborative partnerships that protect species prior to listing. The Endangered Species Act will continue to be a critical tool, but hopefully its stringent protections will only need to be activated as a last resort.

Seventy percent of the land in the lower 48 states is privately owned and, in most cases, these lands are working lands. Reshaping conservation efforts to accommodate both working lands and wildlife protection would help secure the ongoing success of America's conservation program. The sage-grouse decision is a testament to the immense potential of multi-level, public-private collaboration in helping a species rebound in just a few years. As the planet becomes more crowded, ensuring land is available for both humans and wildlife is more critical than ever.


Author: Gabriela Zayas