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Much at stake as grouse endangered finding nears

February 22, 2010

[Source: Bloomberg Business Week]

A lot of Westerners are watching whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is about to pursue Endangered Species Act protection for the greater sage grouse.

A finding is expected by week’s end and the oil and gas, livestock and wind energy industries — to name the bigger interests concerned — all have an enormous stake in whatever the agency decides.

“It ranks right up there with the spotted owl and polar bear,” said Pat Deibert, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Cheyenne who’s been closely involved in the listing decision.

Especially in Wyoming, officials don’t mince words about the potential effect. Wyoming is believed to be home to at least half of North America’s sage grouse. Vast expanses of Wyoming are sage grouse habitat, including the same areas of gas development that supply much of the nation’s heat and drive the state’s economy.

An endangered listing would be “absolutely devastating” by requiring sage grouse to be considered ahead of virtually any development in most of the state, said Ryan Lance, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

“This would throw the whole state economy up in the air,” Lance said.

A brown, chicken-sized bird with pointed tail feathers — the males flare their tail feathers like peacocks and puff out yellowish air sacs during mating rituals — sage grouse can be found in 11 states and southern Canada. Besides Wyoming, they inhabit large portions of Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Idaho, and smaller areas in Colorado, Utah, California, Washington and the Dakotas.

Loss of the birds’ sagebrush habitat is their biggest problem by far, said Deibert, who indicated she knows what the finding will be but won’t say ahead of a formal announcement.

In Wyoming, habitat has been lost to gas wells and related pipelines and roads. In northern Nevada, the problem is cheatgrass, an invasive species that causes frequent wildfires to burn up sagebrush and prevent it from growing back.

West Nile virus also has taken a heavy toll on sage grouse. The birds have little immunity to the disease and in northeast Wyoming, coal-bed methane development has pumped millions of gallons of groundwater to the surface, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes that transmit West Nile, Deibert said.

And the list of problems for sage grouse continues. Unnatural noise frightens them. Barbed-wire fences can be a deadly collision threat. Also, sage grouse don’t like to linger near structures such as power lines wind turbines, fearing that predatory birds can perch on those high places.

“They just do not like us. That’s it,” Deibert said.

Fish and Wildlife faces a Friday deadline to announce whether to pursue listing sage grouse as threatened, endangered, not threatened or endangered, or endangered but precluded by higher priorities from listing.

“It’s at risk of extirpation under current trends,” said Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project.

Western Watersheds sued in 2006 over a decision by Fish and Wildlife under the Bush administration not to list sage grouse. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise, Idaho, ruled in 2007 that political pressure tainted the decision.

Winmill has given Fish and Wildlife until Friday to decide what to do about sage grouse. Marvel wasn’t optimistic — from his perspective — that sage grouse will be listed.

“I fear political instruction from above to block the listing,” he said.

The oil and gas industry has been fearing the opposite. For years it has been working with state and local agencies and funding studies to determine how to protect the birds and prevent listing, said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

“We’re hoping the Fish and Wildlife Service will recognize all the local efforts of communities, ranchers, industry to protect sage grouse,” she said.

Grazing by far is the most common use of the West’s public lands and Marvel said that makes ranching the biggest threat to sage grouse. Deibert, however, said no one really knows that scientifically because no one knows how sage grouse existed before cattle and sheep became common in their habitat.

“I think in some areas, grazing is compatible with sage grouse,” she said.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association believes ranchers have taken considerable steps to protect sage grouse and help bring the species back, said Jim Magagna, the group’s executive vice president.

The Interwest Energy Alliance, a wind energy trade group based in Denver, likewise is awaiting what will happen and believes the best science should guide the decision, said Craig Cox, the group’s executive director.

The National Audubon Society is watching too. Audubon Wyoming worked closely with Wyoming ahead of Freudenthal’s 2008 designation of core sage grouse habitat across much of the state, a voluntary step aimed at preventing listing, pointed out Brian Rutledge, the state group’s executive director.

“Whether or not it is enough,” he said, “is the question that we hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will answer.”

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