The constant struggle among ranchers, environmentalists and governmental agencies to do what's right for wildlife is never more evident than the debate over the sage grouse.
At a first-of-its kind workshop, held April 26 in Boise, one rancher described how the issue brings him—literally—to his knees. The rancher shared how he regularly gets down on his hands and knees to measure the height of sagebrush stubble. For sage grouse, that sagebrush is protected habitat; but for cattle it's food.
"Every time a cow lowers its head and gets a mouthful of grass, that patch is out of compliance," he said.
The problem of sage grouse has been kindling for fierce tensions between land users and regulators for more than a decade: the cause of millions of dollars in litigation, destroyed livelihoods and man hours spent studying, measuring and developing new rules for sage grouse habitat. The workshop, "The Next Steppe: Implementing for the Future," was part of a multi-state listening tour meant to get those users and high-level regulators in the same room to discuss changes in sage grouse policy and seek a less acrimonious path forward.
Not everyone was having it, with one land user saying more lawsuits regarding the bird are inevitable.
"Prepare for that lawsuit in the way that you write these regs now," he said.
Skepticism of regulators like the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service runs high among land users. One rancher said he'd heard of preliminary scientific assessments conducted on grazing lands—assessments used as benchmarks for improving sage grouse habitat—being wrong and even falsified. Another worried creating objective habitat standards regardless of actual sage grouse population on a piece of land—and conservation requirements or even penalties for failing to meet them— was a recipe for disaster.
"I think we should be careful of automatic responses," she said. "Once you have something down on paper, God knows it ends up in court."
The lawsuits have been a thorn in the side of state and federal agencies for more than a decade, even when, in the eyes of conservationists, efforts to protect the bird have stalled. In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declined
to add it to the Endangered Species List. The move drew fire from some environmental groups and praise from some regulators. Meanwhile, the state of Idaho sued the federal government
following the decision, contending conservation policies remained a threat to land users.
“We didn’t want an ESA listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse," Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said at the time. "This complaint is an unfortunate but necessary step to protect the rights of Idaho citizens to participate in public land decisions that will impact their communities, their economy and their lives."
The stated focus of the April 26 workshop was to educate stakeholders about greater sage grouse conservation plans, but the question-and-answer sessions following presentations on grazing, surface disturbance, mitigation and adaptive management were also opportunities for airing grievances. If there's one thing land users and regulators share, it's exhaustion.
"The status quo isn't working," said Jim Lyons, Department of the Interior Land and Minerals Management deputy assistant secretary. "We keep getting sued and we keep losing."
Lyons' job title is a mouthful; his responsibilities are a handful. They're a balancing act between conserving natural resources and protect wildlife, and ensuring land is productive. In his wrap-up statement, he told attendees everyone must cooperate to ensure responsible land use.
"The blueprints are one thing," he said. "We are all going to build this together."