Conservation groups and energy-development companies have been at odds the last few years over an odd, dancing bird called the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). These land-based birds live in and rely upon sagebrush habitats in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Unfortunately, those habitats have been disappearing due to agriculture, roads, energy exploration, development and invasive plants. Today as few as 200,000 of the birds remain—a drop of as much as 93 percent.

For the past five years the greater sage-grouse has been considered a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Also during that time something unique happened: the 11 western states with sage-grouse populations cooperated with the federal government and private conservation organizations and corporations to do everything they could to keep the bird off the endangered species list.

Why would they do this? The logic was simple: if the bird's populations could recover or at least stabilize—and there was some indication that it could—there would be less need to protect it. Keeping the sage-grouse off the ESA would ensure that the Act did not close off some lands to energy development.

One of the components in this was the identification of priority areas of conservation (PACs) for the sage-grouse (pdf). Although much smaller than the birds' historic range, these lands represent what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined to be the most important habitats for the birds in the future. The process didn't actually set aside any land for conservation or establish any new land-use rules. That would follow after an eventual ESA listing.

Now a new report (pdf) finds that these PACs are of great value to the greater sage-grouse but not all that important for energy development. The report—prepared by Western EcoSystems Technology for a conservation group called the Western Values Project—compared PACs on federal land in seven states to existing leases and rights-of-way for coal, oil, natural gas, solar and wind development. It also looked at the potential of PACs for development of those energy sources. The conclusions: only 16 percent of federal land within the PACs had much potential for oil and gas development. An additional 30 percent have potential for solar development. Just six percent have wind-power potential.

On the other hand, the federal lands outside of the PACs had much greater energy development potential: 73 percent for oil and gas; 81 percent for solar; and 75 percent for wind.

Meanwhile, the study found that only about 13 percent of PACs overlap with existing energy leases or rights-of-way, and less than 2 percent of those leases are even active right now.

The seven states in this study—Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming—include 92 percent of all sage-grouse PACs. The other four states all have minimal populations of the birds.

All of this follows less than a month after a previous report—also from the Western Values Project along with the Pew Charitable Trusts— found that the tourism in the grouse's sagebrush habitats generated $623 million in economic spending in 2013 alone. It also comes just one day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to Wyoming to praise an agreement under which nine ranchers will voluntarily help to conserve sage-grouse on their 40,000 acres worth of private properties.

Will all of this be enough to keep the greater sage-grouse off the endangered species list, or to stop the energy industry's objections to protecting the bird? We'll have to wait and see—a decision is due in September 2015.

Photo: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS