Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Sage grouse decision considered a conservation victor

On Sept. 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), announced that range-wide protection of greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier in the month, Ed Arnett successfully hunted the birds in Wyoming.

“I didn’t know if it would be the last time I went sage grouse hunting,” he said.

Arnett, of Loveland, Colo., is an avid bird hunter and the senior scientist of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He belongs to a broad coalition of state and federal agency staff, ranchers, oil drillers, conservationists, developers, recreationists and other users of the West’s vast sagebrush landscape who came together to craft a conservation plan to save and restore sage grouse flocks, thus avoiding an ESA listing and federally mandated regulations that would come with it. The USFWS decision that listing isn’t warranted is being hailed an unprecedented victory for conservation.

Why? Because across 11 states, most public and private stakeholders agreed that an ESA listing for sage grouse was in no one’s best interest and collectively rolled up their sleeves to develop a plan to protect their habitat: the sagebrush ecosystem. Had sage grouse been listed (most likely as Threatened rather than the more imminent Endangered) all land management and use would have been required to go through an ESA consultation, a time-consuming, expensive and litigious process. In contrast, the new conservation plan allows commercial and recreational activities to continue while implementing new conservation practices on the ground.

“Implementation is the key,” says Arnett. “Until they are implemented on the ground, the planning documents are merely paper habitat and paper birds.”

Weighing up to 7 pounds, the greater sage grouse is America’s largest native grouse. Although it was extirpated from Nebraska and Arizona, the bird is presently found in 11 western states and two provinces. Once numbering in the tens of millions, the total population is now estimated at less than a million birds. Long term trends have shown the population has decreased by about one percent annually since 1965.

The greater sage grouse decline is a direct consequence of habitat loss, because the birds require large, undisturbed sagebrush landscapes. The habitat is also home to about 350 sagebrush-dependent plant and animal species. In essence, sagebrush resembles a miniature old growth forest. If sagebrush is disturbed or destroyed, it may take a century for it to become re-established. The best conservation strategy is to protect what sagebrush remains.

Across the West, the sagebrush ecosystem has suffered death by a thousand cuts. In Nevada’s Great Basin, repeated wildfires destroyed sagebrush, allowing invasive cheat grass to take over the landscape. Cheat grass has minimal value as habitat or forage and leads to larger, hotter fires. In Wyoming, gas and oil development includes numerous roads and well pads that fragment sagebrush habitat. Elsewhere, habitat has been lost to housing development, improper grazing, wind energy projects, mining, juniper encroachment and agricultural conversion. In compromised habitat, greater sage grouse become more susceptible to predation and disease, with threats ranging from nest-robbing ravens to West Nile Virus.

The sage grouse conservation strategy identifies priority habitat–core areas for the birds–and general habitat where the birds exist on an altered landscape. It is comprised of state-specific plans and federal land management plans for millions of acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Forest Service. Private landowners, primarily ranchers, are encouraged to adopt voluntary conservation measures, such as habitat-friendly grazing practices, which have been shown to benefit the grouse and improve a rancher’s bottom line. It is important to note that all plans honor existing rights and mining claims. Part of the incentive to avoid ESA listing is to allow traditional land uses such as ranching and recreation to continue.

Arnett says there is minimal overlap between known oil and gas reserves and sage grouse priority habitat. The oil and gas industry will be encouraged to use directional drilling to minimize surface disturbance with roads and drilling pads. Hard rock mining is another matter. About one third of the of the 35 million acres of priority habitat on BLM and USFS lands—roughly 12 million acres—will be considered for withdrawal from the 1872 Mining Act.

Importantly, states will retain management authority over the birds. Under an ESA listing that management authority would shift to the federal government, as is presently the case with Minnesota wolves. Seven states still have sage grouse hunting seasons, although season lengths and bag limits have been reduced as populations declined. Arnett says hunting is not considered a cause of the diminished populations. On an annual basis, sage grouse numbers rise and fall based upon weather and range conditions. Currently, a couple of relatively wet years have allowed bird abundance to increase by more than 50 percent.

As far as hunting, sage grouse are nowhere near as popular as pheasants, which attract throngs of hunters to South Dakota and other hotspots. Instead, sage grouse have a devoted following among dedicated upland hunters and locals. Protecting sage grouse has less to do with preserving a hunting tradition than with protecting sage brush habitat, which is important to a far greater number of hunters who pursue open country game such as mule deer and pronghorns.

On a grand scale, the sagebrush landscape is emblematic of the American West. It is one of the few remaining American landscapes that we have a chance to pass on to future generations. Already gone are the tall grass prairies of the Midwest, the great pine forests of the Lake States, the old growth timber of the Pacific Northwest and much of the coastal marshes of the Atlantic Seaboard and Gulf Coast. From a purely conservation stand point, the fact that we still have sagebrush is reason enough to protect it.

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