The Challenges and Opportunities of a Proactive Endangered Species Act : A Case Study of the Greater Sage Grouse Public Deposited

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  • The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is considered by many to be among the most powerful and most contentious environmental laws in the United States. Persistent challenges to the Act’s implementation make reaching conservation goals problematic. Most notably, the very nature of the law—providing protections for species already at risk of extinction—means its protections are offered only when the situation is already dire, when conservation efforts will be the most difficult, costly, and controversial. Impacted industries and rural communities have frequently chafed under the regulations imposed by the Act, while environmentalists have seen the ESA as a reliable tool for slowing or stopping unwanted development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has begun altering its approach to species conservation by pursuing a series of more proactive tools within the ESA in an effort to address declining species before emergency action under the Act is required. These efforts, including working collaboratively with state governments, federal management agencies, and private landowners, were highly visible in the case of the Greater Sage Grouse, a recent candidate for ESA protection in the western United States. Using the sage grouse as a focal case study, this dissertation evaluates some of the challenges and opportunities involved in these proactive, collaborative conservation efforts. In particular, analysis focuses on one of the key components of the ESA process—the selection, interpretation, and application of scientific evidence. Interviews with stakeholders across three sage grouse states—Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming—as well as planning documents, government reports, and media accounts in these states were collected in order to understand the relationship between collaboration and the use of science in proactive conservation efforts for the sage grouse. Evidence from the three studies in this dissertation suggests that in such efforts, discussion and negotiation surrounding the nature of species threats and possible conservation actions can be hampered by the lack of trust between stakeholders and administrative agencies. The first study (Chapter 2) examines three different conservation efforts in Oregon, and finds that organizational goals, history, and scale of operations influence the degree of collaboration within a particular effort, when then influences the manner in which science is utilized in the process. The second study (Chapter 3) compares the development of voluntary conservation agreements between private landowners and FWS across three states and finds that positive working relationships and trust are critical in effectively negotiating species threats, conservation actions, and monitoring protocols. That being said, when relationships and trust are still being developed, as they often are for the FWS with regard to the ESA, these can be supplemented by partnering with other agencies and organizations with better relationships with communities on the ground, such as the NRCS. The third study (Chapter 4) asks participants from the two earlier portions of the dissertation to define the term ‘best available science,’ an ambiguous concept which is often used as a metric for decision-making in environmental law. Analysis of these responses finds substantial common ground regarding how ‘best available science’ should be defined and identified, but also points to areas of concern with the practice of science-based decision-making.
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