Declining greater sage-grouse populations are causing concern for the future of this species across the western United States. Major ecosystem issues, including exotic annual grass invasion and conifer encroachment, threaten vast acreages of sagebrush rangeland and are primary threats to sage-grouse. We discuss types of problems facing sage-grouse habitat and argue that complex ecosystem problems may be difficult to address under the Endangered Species Act as currently applied. Some problems, such as anthropogenic development, can be effectively regulated to produce a desired outcome. Other problems that are complex and involve disruption of ecosystem processes cannot be effectively regulated and require ongoing commitment to adaptive management. We believe that historical inertia of the regulatory paradigm is sufficient to skew management toward regulatory mechanisms, even though complex ecosystem problems impact large portions of the sage-grouse range. To overcome this situation, we suggest that the regulatory approach embodied in the Endangered Species Act be expanded to include promoting management trajectories needed to address complex ecosystem problems. This process should begin with state-and-transition models as the basis for a conceptual framework that outlines potential plant communities, their value as sage-grouse habitat, and their ecological status. Desired management trajectories are defined by maintenance of an ecologically resilient state that is of value as sage-grouse habitat, or movement from a less desired to a more desired state. Addressing complex ecosystem problems will involve shifting conservation roles. Under the regulatory approach, programmatic scales define regulatory policies, and local scales focus on implementing those policies. With complex ecosystem problems, programmatic scales empower local conservationists to make decisions necessary to adaptively manage problems. Putting ecosystem management on par with traditional regulatory actions honors obligations to provide regulatory protections while maintaining the capacity of the ecosystem to produce habitat and greatly expands the diversity of stakeholders willing to participate in sage-grouse conservation.