Lessons Learned in Conserving a Bird

The sage grouse issue showcases Idaho’s ability to tackle tough issues and come out on top

On February 21, Governor Little signed a proclamation naming the day “Sage Grouse Appreciation Day” and honored key elected officials who have worked throughout the years to ensure both conservation of the species and continued sustainable land use.  The honor bestowed upon Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke and U.S. Congressman Mike Simpson is reflective of the many years of dedicated sage grouse conservation work by countless Idahoans.  It is a nod to the diverse group of individuals, including elected officials, ranchers, land users, energy companies, mining interest, and conservation entities, that have worked together and proven the value of collaboration in staving off the heavy hand of federal bureaucracy.

Idahoans have a proven history of working together to solve complex problems.  The coming together on the sage grouse issue is the epitome of such efforts.  If left to our own devices, the state would have resolved the issue years ago, but as with many issues we face, the complicated nature of our federal laws and regulations, further entangled by opinions of the court, required significant strategy and unique collaboration amongst state officials, land users, and land managers alike.

On the heels of their success in the 1990s in damning the Northwest timber industry with the spotted owl issue through manipulation of the Endangered Species Act, the environmental extremist community sought to find another species with which to wreak similar havoc on rangelands and those who use them.  They found their unwitting victim in the sage grouse species.  Even before the extremists made their intentions clear, Idahoans were already coming together to ensure sound conservation of the species.

Relative to other states, Idaho has always been at the forefront of sage grouse management, conservation, and planning.  This was manifested by the development of Local Working Groups across the state’s sage grouse habitat, first established in 1994, wherein agency officials and interested stakeholders worked together to develop locally-driven solutions to aid sage grouse.

On the heels of the local efforts, a collaborative state sage grouse advisory committee was formed in 2003 and they developed an Idaho sage grouse conservation plan to drive conservation efforts.  As the state and its citizens were diligently working together for the collective good of the land, the species, and its people, the extremists were laying their traps.

Sage grouse were first petitioned by extremist groups to be listed as endangered in 2003.  After several years of legal maneuvering, in 2010, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that listing of the sage grouse was warranted but precluded by the need to focus limited resources on higher priority species.  Not satisfied by this decision, the extremists continued to push the courts for a full endangered species listing, and thereby full control of Idaho citizens ability to use and enjoy their lands.

As the timeline for the sage grouse listing decision became evident, it was clear that the state of Idaho needed to take an even more proactive approach in shaping management of the species within the state’s boundaries.  To do so, then-Governor Otter established a 15-member task force in early 2012 to take an even closer look at addressing both short and long-term solutions to the threats to the species and its habitat.  The task force, comprised of a wide cross-section of Idaho’s public including ranchers, sportsmen, conservation groups, energy representatives, interested public, and federal and state agency officials, developed a detailed state strategy for managing and conserving the species alongside land uses in a way to ensure that its listing as an endangered species was not warranted.  Idaho’s strategy received an unprecedented nod of approval from the USFWS.  The strategy was listed as a co-preferred alternative in the Bureau of Land Management’s and Forest Service’s draft land use plan amendments and the state continued to work with the federal agencies diligently to ensure that the strategy both met the needs of the species and the satisfied federal requirements.  Again, Idaho was the leader amongst the states in displaying such a strong level of collaborative and meaningful effort towards conserving sage grouse and precluding the need to list the species.

That effort paid off, in part, in 2015 when again the federal government determined that a listing of the species was not warranted.  Unfortunately, as a companion to that decision federal land management plans were released which largely overstepped the collaboratively developed state plan and sought to limit land use far beyond actual threats to the species and its needs.  Undeterred, and not to be defeated, our state partners once again rolled up their sleeves and worked all angles to correct the errors, inadequacies, and outright absurdities in the federal plans.  Fortunately, with a different presidential administration in place, federal officials were willing to concede where the documents overstepped their bounds and have since been working to correct that overreach.  Though the road ahead remains long and uncertain, with the promise of continued litigation by the extremist organizations, Idaho has positioned itself in the best way possible to diffuse those attacks and defend against those who wish to manipulate the law against the state and against the good of both its citizenry and its landscape.

The state of Idaho and its citizens have exhibited a constant, persistent, and measured approach to the sage grouse issue that can serve as a roadmap for resolving other challenging policy issues of our day.  When the threat of the sage grouse issue first came to light over 20 years ago, if we had dug our heels in, though right in principle, the most certain result would have been the listing of the species in 2010.  That listing would have been a death nail for Idaho ranchers and others who make a living on Idaho’s lands.  It is both troubling and unfortunate that our system of government has grown into one in which the federal government, and the country’s urban centers, have the oversized ability to control state and local issues.  We have learned that the only way to stay alive in order to continue the fight against that heavy hand is to beat them at their own game-to work within that overgrown system to make incremental improvements and changes.  This pathway has served our state well in not only the sage grouse issue but in other areas such as the roadless rule and wolf management.  We’ve proven our mettle and our ability to work together to resolve complex problems.  Let’s build on those efforts to find meaningful and long-term solutions to other pertinent issues of our day.


Karen Williams is the Policy Director for the Idaho Cattle Association where she has accumulated 20 years of experience in resolving critical policy issues impacting Idaho’s ranching families, the sage grouse issue chief among them. 

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