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Mystery surrounds fate of sage grouse Agencies could list bird by next month

January 26, 2010

[Source:  Nate Poppino for Magic Valley Times-News]

Mountain Home rancher Steve Damele is the kind of cattleman who doesn’t mince words when talking about threatened species on his land. But he only had one answer when asked if his property was habitat for the Greater sage grouse.

“I’d rather not say.”

Such worries are commonplace as the federal government completes a lengthy review of whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act. The birds’ numbers have dropped for a decade, some believe to half its historic habitat. Southern Idaho is one region where numbers are on the decline.

The debate over the bird, which lives in sagebrush areas across nearly 260,000 square miles of the West, has already ignited a controversial debate intertwining politics and science. ESA protections for anything but plants stretch over both public and private land, and federal listing of the bird would have a heavy impact on energy projects, traditional land uses and economic growth in southern Idaho.

Biologists could decide on listing as early as next month, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must meet a court-ordered deadline. With conservationists, ranchers and energy developers all watching nervously, the decision won’t please everybody.

Sage grouse are being reviewed a second time because of a federal suit filed by Idaho’s own Western Watersheds Project in 2006. In December 2007, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill overturned a previous decision not to list the bird because of concerns about political meddling at the Interior Department. The judge ordered Fish and Wildlife to take another look.

The latest grouse science conveys a mixed picture. Grouse habitat is affected by a combination of fire, land conversion, urbanization, population growth, livestock grazing, energy development, invasive plants and other factors. Development plans for much of its territory, especially in Wyoming, threaten to accelerate the decline.

A substantial report released through the U.S. Geological Survey last November detailed the grouse’s decline. The comprehensive review by 38 scientists from a range of federal, state and nongovernmental organizations — led by two scientists from the USGS Boise office and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game — highlighted habitat loss as the root cause of the problem.

Sagebrush areas are the key habitat, necessary for food, cover and nesting. Researchers found the number of grouse that could be supported in sagebrush areas dropped between 2 and 12 percent per year over the past four decades in about half of the populations studied.

Locally, the birds were hit by bad luck, especially the Murphy Complex fire of 2007.

In spite of a number conservation projects in recent years, and planning efforts by no less than three local working groups, the number of local birds is thinning.

A volunteer survey of leks — grouse breeding grounds — last spring found grouse numbers were just half what they were in 2006, said Randy Smith, Fish and Game regional wildlife manager. But the population only fell by 6 percent overall from 2008, and the number of birds on the region’s north side even grew some.

Another index, Smith said, is the number of wings collected this fall from birds harvested by hunters — a figure then used to calculate how many baby grouse were born that year. For 2009, the ratio was two juvenile birds per hen. That’s enough to sustain or even slightly grow a population in most cases, Smith said.

“In the last couple of years, we have been below one and a half,” he said, attributing 2009’s growth to a wet spring and “incredible” chick-raising habitat.

Still, Smith maintains “cautious optimism” for the bird, noting that its numbers have stayed more stable in other parts of Idaho.

He wasn’t alone in that optimism. Former governor Dirk Kempthorne, President George W. Bush’s last interior secretary, said he wouldn’t have listed the sage grouse. He said the states, local working groups and other coalitions were making “a good-faith effort” to solve the grouse’s problems.

“I certainly was not headed in that direction,” he said of listing the bird.

Jim Caswell, Kempthorne’s head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation director before that, said he also got a solid look at the research and wouldn’t have listed the bird either. The problem, he said, was that there wasn’t quite enough data to guess the effect of listing on grouse populations one way or the other.

November’s USGS report was released early in a bid to help change that. And next month’s deadline was actually an extension negotiated with Western Watersheds.

The environmental watchdog is gravely concerned about the government’s approach to grouse. Even as biologists gather data on the bird’s downturn, said Biodiversity Director Katie Fite, the BLM is weighing projects such as a 185-turbine wind farm stretching along what she sees as prime grouse habitat southwest of Rogerson. Already, she argued, the agency overlooked signs that grouse used one site in the recent past in order to approve a meteorological tower.

“Now if we do want to see sage grouse listed, the first thing we want to do is put that wind farm on top of China Mountain,” she said.

As expected, not everyone agrees with the science. Three Creek rancher and outfitter Steve Aslett, for one, believes too much weight has been assigned to habitat problems. He argues he’s seen grouse carry on even in areas torched by the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire.

Smith, however, doubts that optimism. Fish and Game’s 2009 survey found 38 percent fewer birds in the fire-stricken Jarbidge area than in 2008.

“The research is pretty good,” Smith said. Grouse may be able to make use of patchy areas and green desert plants, but it’s not enough. “Sage grouse do not do well in areas that do not have large, contiguous stands of sagebrush.”

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