Brian Brooks

Every fall there’s a ritual for sportsmen and women from around the West and our public lands play a huge part. We’ve had this week blocked off all year. Our friends, family and co-workers know we can’t be reached — our cellphones go straight to voicemail and emails will be ignored until later. Hunting season is upon us and those lucky enough to draw a tag for our chosen area are off to experience one of the most challenging and (hopefully) rewarding weeks of the year.

It’s a cliché but true, a bad day hunting is better than the best day doing almost anything else. As Americans we are blessed with extraordinary landscapes to call our own, our national public lands. These lands are more than just places to recreate, they provide important habitat to big game species like elk, mule deer and pronghorn. Hunters understand, more than most, that healthy habitat means healthy herds.

Of the many other species that share these lands with big game herds one stands out at the moment — the greater sage-grouse. The bird makes its home in the iconic sagebrush lands that every Westerner can easily identify. This same sagebrush landscape is also vitally important winter range for elk, mule deer and pronghorn. Many hunters see the sage-grouse as the canary in the coal mine and its dramatic drop in numbers the last 50 years is a symptom of a landscape in trouble.

Road building, urbanization, grazing, drought and energy development have fragmented and degraded sagebrush lands. That has far-reaching implications for not only sage-grouse but hundreds of other species. It became clear not long ago, that to save the bird there would need to be collaboration on a region-wide level. The sage-grouse was moving closer to being listed as an endangered species — a classification that would have precluded local management decisions and given the federal government much more say in how the bird and its habitat were managed. Listing was the outcome that many Westerners wanted to avoid.

Local and state governments, sportswomen and men, outdoor businesses, ranchers, industry representatives, landowners and wildlife experts came together in one of the largest conservation efforts in our country’s history. Through hard work and compromise over several years, state and federal conservation plans were developed.

A path forward was laid out, the bird would not be listed as an endangered species, habitat would be protected, energy exploration would still move forward responsibly, and the West’s working landscapes would remain healthy and open, allowing sportsmen and ranchers to continue to rely on them.

This was the year that the plans would start to be implemented and all that hard work would pay off. Then the Department of Interior, under new leadership, stepped in and threw a wrench into the whole thing. They want to take another look at the plans and have indicated they are open to amending the plans to make it easier for energy development, even in the most important sage-grouse habitat. We could end up with plans that essentially do nothing to keep the bird off the Endangered Species List.

And what a wasted opportunity that would be. These conservation plans were forged by compromise and hard work, the way we do things in the West. Now we are saddled with uncertainty and are looking at process being driven by Washington, D.C., bureaucrats, an outcome none of the diverse stakeholders wanted. Ironically, we could also be on a path where listing of the bird will become inevitable.

Healthy habitat is a balancing act when it comes to our public lands, whose management is guided by the principle of multiple use. That means hunters, anglers, other outdoor recreationists, ranchers, and energy developers must make room for each other. They must also carry out their activities in a way that ensures everyone has access to public lands for generations to come. That’s where the management of our lands becomes an art as well as a science. How we all coexist is through compromise and collaboration.

One use does not get to preclude all others to benefit a special interest. Unfortunately, the way things are going it is clear that Washington bureaucrats are putting their thumb on the scale to benefit the energy industry over the needs of ranchers, hunters, outfitters, local government and outdoor businesses.

The conservation plans will likely have little impact on energy development in the West because sage-grouse habitat and lands with high potential for energy development do not significantly overlap. A report also shows 73 percent to 81 percent of the areas with medium to high potential for energy development are outside the bird’s habitat.

However, the conservations plans’ impact on big game habitat could be huge. In Idaho, 74 percent of the 11 million acres of sage-grouse habitat is also important big game habitat. Big game won’t be the only beneficiaries from the sage-grouse conservation plans, there are 350 other species of plants and animals that rely on sagebrush lands.

The benefits of improving habitat also go beyond the wildlife species it supports. Local economies will benefit from these conservation efforts. A report shows that recreation-related spending on sagebrush lands in 11 Western states generates at least $1 billion annually.

As hunters we believe the best course forward is to give these plans a chance. The best way to improve the health of wildlife is to improve the health of their habitat, the same habitat that literally fuels our big game species. This collaborative effort also needs to continue.

It’s important for private landowners, state and federal agencies to keep working together to conserve sage-grouse because of the mix of land ownership across the bird’s range. The states need to be partners with federal land managers. The Interior Department and the Forest Service have the capacity to manage habitat across the region that individual states do not.

This chicken-sized bird is sending waves across the West that have reached Washington. People who spent time finding a solution are calling on the Interior Department to give the plans a chance to work. There is no need toss aside all the hard work without giving the plans a chance. The Bureau of Land Management is holding a series of public hearings across the West, including Idaho, on this issue and are collecting public comments until Nov. 27.

If you hunt and fish on our public lands, the plight of the greater sage-grouse can affect the activities you love. Hunters and anglers need to speak out for common-sense to prevail and these plans are put to work.

The next meeting is Nov. 6 in Idaho Falls at the Shiloh Inn, 780 Lindsay Blvd, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The BLM will be accepting public comment until Nov. 27 here: blm_sagegrouseplanning@blm.gov.

Brian Brooks fishes and hunts all over Idaho and is the executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.