The Interior Department is scrambling to meet a September 2015 deadline to avert an Endangered Species Act listing for the greater sage grouse -- what some Westerners warn would be a political and economic disaster.
The charismatic, ground-dwelling bird once occupied nearly 300 million acres of sagebrush grasslands, but its habitat has been plowed, fragmented and burned to roughly half its original expanse.
Leading Interior's grouse rescue are three officials with experience in wildlife crises: Jim Lyons, Sarah Greenberger and Michael Bean.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has tasked the three to work all angles -- political, bureaucratic and legal -- to save the grouse. It's a wildlife challenge without parallel in U.S. history.
The closest comparison may be with the northern spotted owl. Interior's listing of the owl as threatened in 1990 brought the Pacific Northwest old-growth logging industry to its knees.
The stakes are higher for the grouse, which roams lands more than a dozen times as vast as habitat for the spotted owl. The plump grouse shares its habitat with more than 300 other sagebrush species, including mule deer, pronghorn and elk, not to mention ranchers, miners, energy developers and millions of people who call the West home.
"I'm not sure that we have another single species out there that's covering that much geography that touches private, state and federal land to the extent this animal does," said Virgil Moore, who directs Idaho's Department of Fish and Game.
Task No. 1 for Interior's grouse team will be to build trust among landowners who may be disillusioned by the department's Nov. 12 decision to list the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened in western Colorado and southeast Utah, a decision that created rifts with the Obama administration's Democratic allies in the Centennial State (Greenwire, Nov. 12).
Lyons, Greenberger and Bean have taken on a political juggling act, meeting regularly with Interior bureaus, Western governors, energy companies, landowners and conservationists to craft what they hope will be lasting protections for the wider-ranging greater sage grouse.
Since August, they have visited Wyoming, Oregon and Utah and have flown twice to Denver, Portland and Boise. Trips included tours of wildfire burns in the Great Basin, ranchland conservation in Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, and science and policy conferences.
In September, the three met at BLM's state office in Denver to update media and stakeholders on Interior sage grouse efforts.
"There have been times that I've seen Jim Lyons, Michael Bean and Sarah Greenberger more than my own staff," said Moore, who leads Idaho's efforts to spare sage grouse from wildfire, invasive cheat grass and other threats. "Jim Lyons just seems to be omnipresent out here."
To be sure, there are hundreds of Interior personnel helping conserve the grouse. Scores more are likely involved at the Agriculture Department and White House.
Bureau of Land Management Assistant Director Ed Roberson, Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh and Forest Service Deputy Regional Forester Chris Iverson are all providing significant field leadership in the grouse effort.
Lyons, Greenberger and Bean are tasked with tying it all together in Washington, D.C.
The three spoke about their work last week by phone. Bean and Greenberger were at Interior headquarters in Washington, and Lyons was at the International Sage-grouse Forum in Salt Lake City.
Lyons, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, was assigned to sage grouse by Jewell shortly after he joined the department in July 2013. An expert in landscape conservation, Lyons helps oversee sage grouse protection on tens of millions of acres of federal lands and works with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to recruit private landowners to the conservation fold. Private lands account for roughly 40 percent of sage grouse habitat.
He served as USDA undersecretary for natural resources and environment during the Clinton administration, where he played a key role in the Forest Service's 2001 roadless rule and the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan that protected the spotted owl from old-growth logging.
"It almost seems I was destined to get involved in sage grouse to some degree," he said.
'You've got to get out here'
Lyons this month spoke at an Interior forum in Boise, Idaho, on threats to sage grouse from wildfire and invasive species. He travels most frequently of the three on the department's grouse team -- to the chagrin of his Chesapeake Bay retriever at home in Maryland, he said.
"It's not easy to work on a Western landscape issue from inside the Beltway -- you can't," he said. "You've got to get out here. You've got to see it. You've got to talk to people, and people need to know that you're listening and want to understand what they're doing to put in place the conservation measures they think are going to be necessary to conserve the bird."
Greenberger, a counselor to Jewell, joined the department three years ago and has been working on sage grouse since summer 2013 as both convener and liaison between FWS, BLM, the U.S. Geological Survey, Western governors and the secretary. She has previously specialized in putting out fires at Interior, such as in summer 2012 when an outbreak of hantavirus infections occurred among overnight visitors at Yosemite National Park.
Greenberger formerly worked in Interior's solicitor's office and before that for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) on the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife.
She's taken note of conservation efforts she's seen on her Western trips: Ranchers are installing sage-grouse-friendly solar panels to replace wind turbines; rural fire districts are more quickly squelching rangeland wildfires; oil and gas companies are building pipelines to reduce roads; and mining companies are investing in unique sagebrush restoration techniques, she said.
"There is always the fear that we won't understand or appreciate the work that they're doing on the ground," Greenberger said of Western stakeholders. "No one is confused about the magnitude of the challenge, the complexity of the issue or the importance of addressing it."
Brian Rutledge, a National Audubon Society vice president based in Fort Collins, Colo., said Greenberger is "very engaged and honest" and has been described as one of Jewell's smartest deputies.
Bean, who is principal deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, has been a point man for sage grouse since late 2011, when former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tapped him to oversee a task force with Western governors. Bean previously worked at the Environmental Defense Fund and has a reputation for finding creative solutions to ESA problems that include incentives for private landowners.
A legal guru, Bean is Interior's foremost expert for what can and can't be done under the ESA.
When he's not tending to his many other tasks -- including Everglades restoration, migratory bird conservation and historic preservation -- Bean helps Western stakeholders ensure their sage grouse conservation plans are up to FWS standards.
All three have provided "solid upper-level policy" that is responsive to states' unique conservation goals, Moore said.
"Jim Lyons was the first to endorse an outcome-based, not process-based, strategy," Moore said. It gives states the flexibility to craft unique paths to the same conservation outcomes.
For Greenberger and Lyons, sage grouse have also become a family affair.
Greenberger has a sage grouse mug, pin and other paraphernalia. She said her 2-year-old daughter can now identify the bird, and sage grouse have become a frequent topic at the dinner table with in-laws.
Lyons' daughter, a junior at Smith College, interned with the Forest Service in Mackay, Idaho, this summer tracking and collaring sage grouse in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. "She said, 'Dad, you really need to work on this rangeland. Some of it's in really bad shape,'" Lyons said.
Lyons is the only one of the three to have seen a sage grouse in the wild.
It happened at sunrise this past spring on a remote sagebrush flat in northeast Utah, Lyons said. He described the scene of males strutting for hens' attention as "kind of like a high school dance."
Greenberger came close to seeing a sage grouse weeks ago while traveling with Jewell in southwest Wyoming. As Jewell exited the front of a tour vehicle, she flushed a pair of birds, said Rutledge, who was accompanying them. By the time Greenberger got out of the back, the fowl were gone.
Criticism all around
Interior has endured a lot of criticism for its grouse work.
In late September, bipartisan leaders at the Western Governors' Association accused BLM and the Forest Service of treating states as an "afterthought" as they coordinate sage grouse protection plans.
House Republicans have hounded Fish and Wildlife over the quality of its science. "The department is blatantly ignoring or downplaying significant flaws and gaps in its own sage grouse data and science, and failing to incorporate recent data that suggests sage grouse populations are stable and not declining," said a letter to Jewell last month from more than a dozen members, including the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the Natural Resources Committee.
And the decision to list the Gunnison grouse may have also disillusioned some of the landowners Interior is hoping to court to preserve the greater sage grouse. "It does kind of send a signal that the aggressive approaches of the states are being ignored," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said at the recent sage grouse forum in Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, scientists and conservationists have complained of a "lack of consistency and scientific rigor" in BLM's amendments to better protect sage grouse on nearly 47 million acres. Since 2012, BLM has spent roughly $20 million updating those plans and hiring additional sage grouse staff.
In large part, the job of Lyons, Greenberger, Bean and others at Interior will be to teach the public about threats to grouse and the benefits of protecting its dwindling rangelands.
The perception of some in the West is that Washington, D.C., bureaucrats are too detached from the lands and wildlife to make sound management choices.
"We are coming from D.C. from outside their community," Greenberger said. "We're not people the states or other folks on the ground work with every day."