December 2015: Lessons from the Greater Sage Grouse and Oregon Chub

Tom Bigford square

Tom Bigford – AFS Policy Director

The Obama administration announced on September 22, 2015, that it would not list the greater sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). That decision, anchored in the vast western sagebrush ecosystem from Washington to New Mexico, has major implications for fish everywhere. Along with the Oregon Chub Oregonichthys crameri recovery, we now have another successful model that spans science, management, policy, education, and public-private collaboration. The challenging next steps are ours (collectively) for those species and dozens of others, and the opportunity extends to imperiled fish and their habitats everywhere.

These successes (and that’s being optimistic since it’s so early) started with stumbles. Scientists estimate sage grouse populations plummeted 90% before all the players mustered a meaningful response. The Oregon Chub faced a comparable challenge, with much of its habitat degraded by human-induced changes to watershed geomorphology. Action was prompted by dire situations that required significant and prompt change.

The angst associated with ESA decisions is routine, narrows our options, frays our nerves, strains our budgets, and complicates recovery. Those facts hold true whether we’re operating under federal regulatory control (such as with the Oregon Chub) or using the grassroots approach that forms the optimistic basis for the public-private partnership that now stands between listing and survival for the grouse. Indeed, it was the coalition of state and federal agencies, regional industries such as ranching and mining, and environmental groups who rallied for the sage grouse. Their efforts meant no listing, and their reward is a front-row seat during discussions about the conservation efforts needed to make good on their collective promises.

The decisions along this path are clear. As we document population declines and habitat loss, we can dawdle or we can act. Paraphrasing Yogi Berra (and he passed away recently, so I’m thinking of him kindly), there’s a fork in the road and we better take it. We could act now to avoid a probable outcome, or we can wait as the situation worsens and then rely on hopeful restoration. While the Oregon Chub experience is a great success under ESA rules, wouldn’t it make sense to avoid years of increasing neglect, avoid a listing altogether, gather the affected parties to design a reasoned strategy that protects vital range before it is degraded, and squelch the threats before we need to consider extinction? That’s the approach taken for the sage grouse, and it holds promise when applied to aquatic systems.

Let’s revisit the historic status of the Oregon Chub (USFWS 2015). The small minnow, once common in slack waters of the Willamette River valley of western Oregon, was listed as endangered in 1993. A recovery plan was published in 1998, and critical habitat was designated in 2010. That pace and those milestones are more than we see for some other species, and they helped to convince managers to downgrade the listing from endangered to threatened in 2010. Now only five years later and prompted largely by habitat improvements, the species was delisted and a national success story was written.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, buoyed by the strong collaboration of affected parties spanning several state and federal administrations, has taken the other fork in the road for sage grouse. Partners have toiled in recent years to limit livestock grazing and industrial development, redefine healthy economic growth, and develop monitoring protocols to ensure steady progress. Not all groups bought into the decision not to list, so they are certain to conduct their own oversight. Still, the clear winner is a multi-pronged effort involving all stakeholders and aimed at the major hurdles between extinction and recovery, albeit not in a traditional ESA context. Perhaps we’re witnessing the development of a non-traditional ESA context, one based on avoiding listing through action rather than inaction, through deep collaboration across sectors outside federal control.

We have a parallel opportunity for threatened and endangered habitats—coral reefs, submerged aquatic vegetation, cool streams, gravel bars, and more. We cannot focus exclusively on the fish; we must address habitats. The Oregon Chub experts knew that when they sought to restore braided streams and meanders. The sage grouse partners know they need to protect the “kels,” those special places where adults return annually for their mating rituals. We know to protect natal streams for anadromous fish and clear water for shellfish. Whether bird or fish, it’s best to strive for healthy systems to support the species and its habitat.

We can apply these lessons every day in our work. Whether our favorite species is healthy, struggling, or slipping toward extinction, we can give deeper consideration to the full range of preventative protection, restoration where we cannot protect, protection to avoid backsliding, creative incentives to inspire deep commitment, new partners outside those ever-present silos, and thoughtful financing to extend beyond traditional approaches.

Go forth and do the right thing. It’s all about choices.


USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). 2015. Species fact sheet on the Oregon Chub, Oregonichthys crameri. Available: www.fws. gov/oregonfwo/Species/Data/OregonChub. (September 2015).

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