State-Driven Success in Sage-Grouse Conservation

Primary Investigators


Jordan K. Lofthouse, MSE, Strata Policy PhD Fellow
Camille Harmer, BS, Strata Policy Researcher

Executive Summary


The greater sage-grouse, a wild bird that lives across the Western United States, has become one of the most controversial species in American history. Over the past few decades, a political movement has worked to place the greater sage-grouse under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its interest in listing the species in 2010, several Western states increased their efforts to preserve the greater sage-grouse. In 2015, the FWS decided not to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the ESA, in large part because the states proved that they could effectively protect the species.

The fight over the sage-grouse illustrates how state governments can and do conserve species. States cooperate with federal agencies to increase decentralized decision-making and more successfully protect species. By deferring to states, the federal government could be more effective at conserving species and limiting the economic harm caused by the ESA. The purpose of this policy brief is to illustrate why increasing state management of endangered species would be an improvement over the current approach.

Cooperative federalism and decentralized decision-making occur when the federal government allows lower levels of government to make their own policies. This type of decision-making is beneficial in three ways. First, states serve as “laboratories” of innovation for testing various approaches to conservation. Second, state agencies may have better data and expertise regarding species conservation than federal agencies. Third, state governments are often more responsive to the needs of local people better than federal decision-makers. They are able to create policies and conservation plans that more carefully account for local economic and geographic factors.

The federal government could enhance species recovery by cooperating more with the states and by deferring many conservation decisions to lower levels of government. Over the past twenty years, many scholars have noted the “lack of consistent and sustained cooperation between state and federal agencies” on endangered species issues. Following the example demonstrated by state-level sage-grouse management, the federal government could allow for more cooperative and decentralized policies that may improve overall species conservation. In particular, the federal government could change the implementation of the ESA’s Section 6 or Section 4(d) to increase cooperation and decentralization.

Read the full report here.