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article imageCaring when convenient? A conservation controversy

By Edgar Wilson     Sep 28, 2015 in Environment
It takes more than declining population numbers to “threaten” a species.
After a lengthy debate U.S. federal authorities determined not to change the status of the greater sage grouse to threatened or endangered.
This was more than a nominal issue, as the protected status of the bird and its habitat would have had a far-reaching impact, threatening the future of major economic industries including mining, logging, gas, and construction.
The confluence of various stakeholders catapulted the bird’s status from a regional consideration to a national controversy. Economic interests, including business owners, workers, and property developers, were forced to compete with environmentalists lending their voices to the sage grouse, over how to strike a balance between accommodating the bird and continuing to operate in the area.
Ultimately, the decision was made on something of a technicality, which will be under review within five years.
Authorities from the Department of the Interior explained that a recent recovery in sage grouse populations, partly as a result of extensive population protection and restoration efforts across some 67 million acres of habitat on federal land. While the grouse appeared to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Protection Act, the recent turnaround means that, for now, they don’t meet the standard for threatened or endangered status.
On its surface, this can seem like good news for both the sage grouse, and the various human stakeholders awaiting the decision. Indeed, many are already celebrating what they describe as a successful compromise, in which federal agencies will try to build on seemingly successful efforts to protect the bird, while industry will escape significant disruption.
A significant environmentalist contingent, however, sees the precedent being set not as a positive signal, but a threat to conservation efforts the world over.
The precedent set by the sage grouse is not just significant for other threatened and endangered animals around the world; it may be a representation of just how seriously the public, the government, and ultimately the society takes its role in both disrupting and protecting natural habitats and the animals that share the planet.
Coordinating efforts between companies, states, non-profits, and the federal government makes it easy for any given stakeholder to feel maligned or neglected. A state restriction on drilling for oil, for example, can drive capital to neighboring states, turning the issue from a matter of nesting birds to unemployment and public investment.
Unlike the tragic story of the passenger pigeon, which was hunted to extinction, the sage grouse’s status is frustratingly complex. It demonstrates how much of the difficulty of modern conservation activity centers around managing side-effects of human behavior.
Indirect human activities are already known to have potentially devastating effects on wildlife populations through the introduction of invasive species. While this gains more attention when it threatens a highly visible and economically important species like bees, the sage grouse’s plight demonstrates how difficult it can be to capture the public’s attention. Industry may threaten the sage grouse’s habitat, but foreign plant species displacing sagebrush have done much more to destroy the landscape of the western U.S., along with the animals that live there.
Despite the long, storied history of sustainability programs, basic human nature continues to challenge when, where, and to what extent development will be managed with respect to the environment. The greater sage grouse is just the latest example of how conservation thrives on convenience, but struggles in the face of complexity.
While data may indicate a stabilization in the population for now, that is far from the end of the sage grouse’s struggle to find its place in the world. In weighing a species’ survival against disrupting human endeavors, the jury is still out.
More about Conservation, Endangered species, United States, Department of the Interior, greater sagegrouse
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