More than 40 years since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed, our nation’s signature law for protecting rare species is about to face it’s most significant challenges on Capitol Hill and in the courts.

Sage grouse habitatControversy surrounding a possible listing of the Greater sage grouse is one significant factor that is focusing national attention on the ESA.With populations spanning 11 energy- and agriculture-rich western states, the sage grouse is an icon of the west. By some estimates, its population has been reduced from millions to perhaps under 500,000 today. Sage grouse are predictors of land health and of the presence of other species.Pronghorn, mule deer and hundreds of other plants and animals thrive where sage grouse thrive.

A congressional rider to the 2015 federal spending bill forestalled any immediate action to list the showy, chicken-sized bird, as threatened or endangered.This stopgap action can at best buy more time, but sagebrush ecosystems can take decades or longer to recover from fire and other disturbances.This hasn’t stopped determined people in the west from working to restore millions of acres of habitat.

Since 2010, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and its partners in the innovative Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) have invested nearly $425 million on voluntary, cooperative efforts to restore 4.4 million acres of habitat for sage grouse, while maintaining working landscapes.By 2018, SGI expects to have invested more than $750 million in protect, restore and manage habitat for sage grouse across the west.

Sage grouse ecosystem quoteNone of this successful conservation work would have been possible without the active engagement of private landowners.The lessons that emerge from hundreds and thousands of private landowners working in concert with federal agencies, businesses, states and local governments can serve as a guide to the next generation of species conservation.Private property owners and private enterprise have the flexibility and expertise to try new ideas and drive innovation.

Too often the debate over Greater sage grouse and other species of concern, is whether to list or not to list. However, neither decision on its own is the answer to improving species populations.Rather, encouragement of public/private partnerships, developing incentives for more proactive conservation by private landowners and public land agencies, inspiring states and businesses to continue to invest in recovery efforts and most of all, to set realistic goals to not only help to preserve sage grouse, but those other species that will undoubtabley follow the same fate in the future have to be part of the equation.

One of America’s most influential conservationists, Aldo Leopold, once said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest”.More than 60% of America’s lands are privately owned and most rare species depend upon these private lands for their survival.America must encourage, empower and learn from the efforts of these “conservation entrepreneurs” if we hope to pass along healthy land and abundant wildlife to future generations.

A male sage grouse displays during a lek, or mating ritual, in Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.

A male sage grouse displays during a lek, or mating ritual, in Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a court-ordered deadline of September 30, 2015 to determine whether it should list the Greater sage grouse under the ESA.But it will take more than just voluntary efforts on private lands to conserve the bird.The Service is also looking to the federal agencies and the states for strong conservation plans that complement the extraordinary work of the private sector to date.Contrary to popular criticism, the federal plans are not “one size fits all.”Legislative action to delay the federal plans for any length of time – say another 10 years- might seem like good politics for some in the short term, but it will likely lead to further declines in sage grouse populations and other related species, thus increasing the likelihood of a future listing.Also, delays keep the species in a “warranted, but precluded” status that creates even greater uncertainty for industry, ranchers and other stakeholders.

Some have suggested that a listing would be better than changes to federal and state management.Nothing could be further from the truth.Putting measures in place to conserve sage grouse and sage brush ecosystems, today, as this collaborative effort between the federal and state agencies and private landowners would do, is clearly better than a listing would ever be.

Why are private lands so important? Have you heard the phrase, “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd”?Sportsman want to see working ranches maintained and believe that sustainable grazing practices that retain vegetative cover are necessary for nesting, brood-rearing and wintering sage grouse habitat.All this is achievable and benefits landowners and their operations.

As mentioned, since its inception, the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative has devoted nearly half a billion dollars to sage grouse conservation efforts on private lands encompassing 1,129 ranches in eleven western states.They have successfully contributed to habitat improvements on 6,000 square miles, an area twice that of Yellowstone National Park.SGI has conserved in perpetuity 360,000 acres of intact habitat that faces the highest threat of subdivision or conversion.Easement acquisition in sagebrush country has increased 18-fold during the program’s tenure.

In closing, just remember one thing.When it comes down to it, this battle may be based on the sage grouse, but it is much bigger than just that – It is a battle to save an ecosystem to is essential to hundreds of plants and animals and if we don’t do something about it now, tomorrow may just be too late!