The sage grouse two-step: Massive federal sage grouse conservation plans strike a delicate balance.

This piece appeared in the June 22, 2015 print edition of High Country News:

Northern spotted owls are white-and-brown tree dwellers with sprays of feathers between their eyes. Greater sage grouse are football-sized ground-strutters, whose males flaunt yellow chest sacs during mating season. The owls nest in drippy old-growth Northwest forests; the sage grouse, beneath the dry, silvery fronds of their namesake shrub. When spotted owls were blamed for shutting down the Northwest’s timber industry in the ’80s and ’90s, bumper stickers appeared with slogans like “I love spotted owls … fried.” And though people actually eat sage grouse, their notoriously bitter taste has perhaps kept them off the tongue-in-cheek menu.

The two birds couldn’t be more different, but they’re often compared because their declines catalyzed massive, controversial federal interventions. A few years after the owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration hammered out the nation’s first-ever landscape-scale attempt to manage for ecosystem health. Crafted in a mere 90 days under intense pressure to end years-long wars over logging’s environmental toll, the Northwest Forest Plan sought to balance the industry with habitat protections across 24 million federal acres. But timber harvests proved much lower than promised, leaving local communities reeling and making the spotted owl a magnet for ESA bashers.

Critics will have an even better target if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the grouse this year: The bird shares its vast range with powerful industries like oil and gas. To avoid a listing, in late May Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled 14 plans that protect 66 million acres of grouse habitat on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands across 10 states. Unlike the Northwest Forest Plan, though, the sage grouse process has been collaborative from the get-go. The resulting strategy walks a political tightrope, building on states’ existing efforts to conserve the bird, while imposing the consistent, range-wide safeguards needed to convince Fish and Wildlife that additional protections are unnecessary.

“We’re trying to put together something that works for the bird and provides flexibility for sustainable economic development,” says Jim Lyons, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals, who has helped coordinate the planning since 2013 and did the same for the Northwest Forest Plan. But if things skew too far in either direction, the whole endeavor may collapse. More…