Since the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated the Greater Sage-Grouse as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010, environmentalists and industry stakeholders have vehemently disagreed about the species’ need for federal protection. While FWS is expected to announce its decision later this month, new data suggests that local efforts to protect the sage grouse may be succeeding.

As we first explained in FWS Announces ESA Protection for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, the Greater Sage grouse is a ground-dwelling bird with a range across 165 million acres, primarily in Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and Idaho. Because the species depends on large swaths of sagebrush for its habitat, accelerated rates of energy development in the region pose a threat to the animal’s survival.

After FWS identified the Greater Sage-Grouse as a candidate for ESA listing five years ago, USDA launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), a multi-state partnership of industry, ranchers, agencies, and environmentalists aimed at preserving the species. Ranchers working with SGI agreed not to overgraze habitat, while participating oil and gas companies funded research and restoration initiatives. According to SGI, the partnership has restored over 4.4 million acres to date by removing encroaching trees and through conservation easements.[1]

A report on population trends released in August by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) showed that these and other efforts to conserve the species may be paying off: the number of male sage-grouse observed in the field has reportedly increased from 49,397 in 2013, 57,399 in 2014, and 80,284 in 2015.[2] WAFWA sage-grouse coordinator San Stiver has been cautiously optimistic about the increase: “I wouldn’t suggest this is a trend at this point, as it is not enough years for a trend, but it is clearly good news.”[3]

Because the bird’ habitat ranges across states that are prime locations for energy development, FWS’s decision is likely to have significant effects on a variety of sectors, including oil, gas, wind, solar, and transmission line projects.  While the recovery of populations cuts against listing the species as “endangered”—a move that many energy development companies have opposed because of concerns that such a listing could restrict their operations—it is not yet clear what impact the study will have on FWS’s plans.

[1] Whitney Forman-Cook, USDA pledges additional $211 million in sage grouse protection funds, Aug. 27, 2015, available at http://www.agri-pulse.com/USDA-pledges-additional-211-million-in-sage-grouse-protection-funds-08272015.asp.

[2] WAFWA, Greater Sage-Grouse Population Trends: An Analysis of Lek Count Databases 1965-2015, Aug. 2015, available at http://www.wafwa.org/Documents%20and%20Settings/37/Site%20Documents/News/Lek%20Trend%20Analysis%20final%208-14-15.pdf. See Charlie Passut, Sage Grouse Population Rebounds to Nearly 425K, Aug. 20, 2015, available at http://www.naturalgasintel.com/articles/103382-sage-grouse-population-rebounds-to-nearly-425k.

[3] USDA, Greater Sage-Grouse Population on the Rise, Aug, 17, 2015, available at http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/08/17/greater-sage-grouse-population-on-the-rise/.